Another blow to the Census


January 26, 2018

A dress rehearsal of the 2020 Census – officially known as the End-to-End Census Test — is scheduled to take place this spring in Providence County, Rhode Island. But in another blow to the count, a change from the 2010 Census that was recommended to increase the accuracy of the count of racial and ethnic minorities may not be included after all.
Based on years of research, Census Bureau officials last year proposed combining two questions about race and Hispanic origin into one question, because years of research found that minority populations are more likely to respond to a single combined question. The revised questionnaire also included a breakout for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

But now it seems the Census Bureau, under new leadership of the Trump administration, has requested going back to the two-question format, despite its own recommendations. Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson believes the request is a sign that the bureau has gotten word that the Office of Management and Budget, which has final say over standards for race and ethnicity data for federal agencies, will not allow the proposed change to one question. Census officials need the Rhode Island test to ask the same questions as the actual census in 2020, so were forced to ignore their own findings. The change will reportedly be discussed at the Census Bureau’s public meeting on 2020 census preparations taking place today.

Undercounting of minority populations has been a known problem with the decennial count. The Census Bureau found that in 2010, for example, the government undercounted the Hispanic population by 1.5 percent. At the same time, the census overcounted the non-Hispanic population by 0.8 percent, largely because people with multiple homes answered the survey multiple times.

In response to the controversy, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement,

“Accurate, detailed data are an essential tool for ensuring equal opportunity and access to the nation’s institutions and resources for all people, but especially those who have been victims of discrimination historically. The Trump administration has clearly bowed to opponents of diversity and those who view immigrants as a threat to the nation’s future, rather than as a defining characteristic of our nation’s strength and leadership in the world. We are alarmed that the new administration is discarding years of painstaking, objective research that would improve the collection and reporting of this data. … Congress should not allow the Trump administration’s misguided decision to overturn recommendation from expert Census Bureau staff.”

This controversy comes on the heels of another involving the counting of immigrants in the Census. As we reported earlier this month, a Department of Justice official in December formally asked the Census Bureau to add a question to the 2020 Census about respondents’ citizenship status, which would certainly lower response rates among immigrants and drive up costs for the already-underfunded count. In response, more than 125 representatives sent a letter calling on Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to reject the Department of Justice’s request. In part, the letter read,

“The addition of a citizenship question, along with the other recently reported actions of pending and/or already appointed unqualified political operatives to the Census to positions that have never been political, calls into question whether this administration is serious about an accurate count or is instead actively working to hurt the integrity of the Census and ultimately discount minority voters.”

Census numbers are used to decide how the federal government will distribute more than half a trillion dollars, and are also used to determine congressional representation, including being used to expose politically motivated attempts to gerrymander congressional districts.

According to NPR, the Census Bureau is expected to release its report to Congress on the final wording of the 2020 census questions — including those about race and ethnicity — by the end of March.

In addition to the last-minute uncertainty of question wording, Congress has not yet provided adequate funding for the decennial census preparations. Secretary Ross has requested an additional $187 million for the current fiscal year, without which the Census Bureau will not be able to do all the necessary tests to ensure an accurate count.

2020 Census
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