A photo of attorneys leaving the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md., after a hearing on the federal government's motion to dismiss the NAACP lawsuit over concerns about the 2020 census.
Attorneys leave the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, after a hearing on the federal government's motion to dismiss the NAACP lawsuit over concerns about the 2020 census. Michael Kunzelman/AP

The Supreme Court may decide the fate of the citizenship question that the Trump administration wants to add to the census.

The first federal court decision about the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census did not leave much room for debate. U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman’s 277-page ruling, described as “crystal clear” and “remarkably restrained” by constitutional scholars and lawyers, outlined what Furman called a “veritable smorgasbord” of administrative law violations by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who misled Congress when he said that the Department of Justice had originally requested the citizenship question.

But this court’s decision won’t be the last word in the matter. On Tuesday, a federal court in Maryland began hearing a suit brought forward by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice that argues that Ross, President Donald Trump, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former White House advisor Stephen Bannon conspired to deprive minorities of equal representation. That’s just one of eight pending challenges (not counting appeals) over the citizenship question.

Whether the 2020 count features a question about citizenship will likely fall to the U.S. Supreme Court—maybe even before an appeals court takes up the case, if the Department of Justice gets its way. Any decision will come too late for leaders responsible for preparing for a census that already faces unique challenges. Some of those obstacles have nothing to do with the lofty constitutional questions before the court—from the tech uptake associated with putting the census online for the first time to the task of hiring more than half a million census takers in a strong economy.

With the federal government stuck in shutdown mode and the central question hanging over the count lost in legal limbo, city leaders have little choice but to brace for chaos.

For James Diossa, the young Latino mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island—a Providence suburb of 19,000 residents with a Latinx population upward of 70 percent—anxiety over the 2020 census is far from abstract. Ross announced the citizenship question in March 2018, just as the U.S. Census Bureau was conducting its one and only end-to-end test run in Providence County.

“I still recall the moment when the test trial was going on and the citizenship question was introduced, weeks after the forms went out,” Diossa says. “People were confused. They didn’t understand whether the citizenship question was going to be on the test or not. It was just very confusing and disorganized.”

Budget shortfalls forced the Census Bureau to cut down from three full dress rehearsals to one. Providence County provided the only test for some 50 new IT systems and methodologies in what will be the first-ever electronic census. Local leaders expressed fears that the test run was severely underfunded. Gabriela Domenzain, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, put it bluntly to Uprise RI: “The census will fail.”

“There was no information, no advertising, no discussions happening from the Census Bureau around this test trial run,” Diossa says.

Partly in response to its dismal experience, the state is taking action. Late in December, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order authorizing a statewide Rhode Island Complete Count Committee. Diossa will co-chair the task force, along with Rhode Island Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott; it will comprise representatives from local governments, hard-to-count populations, a federally recognized Native American tribe, seniors, labor, and other communities. “We’re looking at having members from all over the state be on this committee, from different walks of life and different organizations,” Diossa says.

That work is already underway in Los Angeles, where local complete count committees now meet quarterly to strategize about reaching hard-to-count populations. L.A. is ahead of the eight ball: The city and county launched their census programs back in March 2017. Maria de la Luz Garcia, the director of the Census 2020 Initiative for the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, says that after the 2010 census, L.A. decided to get a three-year jump on 2020.

Going into the 2020 push, Los Angeles City and County dialed back the administrative burden on everyone involved by cooperating: The city and county are leading joint complete count programs. “We were duplicating efforts,” Garcia says, describing the approach to the last census. “We were talking to the same stakeholders but making them go to different meetings.”  

Los Angeles City and County are jointly responsible for the 2020 census org chart. (Los Angeles Counts 2020)

One high-priority goal in Los Angeles is to prepare residents for a digital census. This is a special challenge for L.A., where 36 percent of the population lacks broadband access at home, according to the Public Policy Institute of Califonia. Plus, the digital divide is sharper for Latinx households than for blacks, Asians, or whites. Younger, more educated, and wealthier adults are more likely to use a smartphone to get online, but digital access is still spotty for some L.A. groups. Garcia says efforts to bridge the gap include installing “census action kiosks” in libraries and other public facilities. “We’re going to be focusing on making sure that a lack of access to the Internet is not a barrier to participation,” she says.

Similar efforts in Rhode Island met with mixed results. One laptop installed at a public library in Providence to offer a direct link to the census saw just one user during the March 16 to July 31 dry run, according to The New York Times. However, the Census Bureau’s acting director, Ron Jarmin, hailed the test as a success, saying that census takers equipped with iPhones were more productive than field operatives with paper forms. (Final participation rates are still pending.)

Finding enough census takers to actually conduct the 2020 count is going to a job in itself. The Census Bureau needs to hire a small army of temporary field workers to complete its mission. Make that a massive army—more than 500,000 enumerators, beginning with address canvassers who will go door to door to double-check the federal government’s list of addresses. Ensuring against an undercount means tabulating every new granny flat (legal or otherwise) and finding families displaced by natural disasters, among other daunting tasks. After that, the Census Bureau’s large seasonal workforce will be responsible for reaching the hard-to-count households who don’t receive or don’t respond to the census.

A screengrab from an immersive simulation designed for training census takers. (Census Bureau)

“Census taker” may wind up being one more job in the gig economy, offering flexible hours on nights and weekends, and even good pay in some places (as much as $30 per hour in San Jose, for example) or for desired skills (like proficiency in languages other than English). But unlike driving for Uber or shopping for Instacart, taking even a part-time job with the federal government can be an arduous process. Applications for these jobs will hit the market as soon as September.

Hiring could be a hitch for the census. Given the fact that the unemployment rate fell to a 49-year low of 3.7 percent in November, it may be hard to field enough workers (assuming the jobless rate stays more or less unchanged). For the end-to-end test in Providence County, the Census Bureau was only able to hire two-thirds of the workers it was targeting.

For cities, the task ahead is minimizing the extraordinarily expensive task of going door-to-door to locate the uncounted—or worse, the costly repercussions of not counting everyone. That work begins with local outreach, according to Perla Ni, the CEO and founder of CommunityConnect Labs, a company that helps governments to use mobile services to reach low-income groups. This work will take a variety of forms, she says.

For example, the first thing community groups can do is recruit census field workers. While an online census will be more convenient for some respondents, it will be all the more difficult for others; community groups can help. The census isn’t just a priority for charitable groups: Local chambers of commerce have a role to play in making sure the count is accurate, since data from the census will inform business decisions over the next decade. The 2020 census will arrive in mailboxes (and inboxes) alongside a lot of other civic literature, thanks to the 2020 election. Cutting through the noise will be a task for organizations already working in communities, from schools to faith-based groups to health and service providers.

“Almost everyone under the sun, and certainly faith-based groups, will be playing a large role, because they’re such trusted members of the community,” Ni says.

The cost of failure will be borne by these communities. The census determines how some $800 billion in federal spending is divided every year between funds for transportation, aid for housing and healthcare, and more. A court decision that adds an untested question to the census will only exacerbate the challenges ahead.

Even if the 2020 census proceeds without a citizenship question, it may be hard to allay the fears that this debate has provoked. As difficult as the task may be now, it could get worse.

“It’s too late to add new rules in the fourth quarter,” Diossa says.

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