What You Need to Know About Census 2020 and Equity

Three things we’re tracking that could jeopardize health and equity.

By Sari Bilick and Jonathan Heller

Contiguous United States, Census 2010 by Eric Fischer
  1. Adding a citizenship question, furthering fear
  2. Limiting race and ethnicity options, ignoring complex identities

Underfunding, undercounting

The 2020 Census has been drastically underfunded and is behind schedule. Normally, funding is increased in the final years before the Census, however the Trump Administration cut the Obama Administration’s 2017 recommendations by 10%. The 2018 funding has not increased from the previous year. This is all in the face of rolling out an extensive online Census that will be significantly more expensive than past years. This has led to delays and cuts. For example, there will be only one test site for the full dry run (Rhode Island) rather than the 3 that were originally planned. This will limit the ability to count the hard-to-count populations and profoundly affect the Census accuracy.

Adding a citizenship question, furthering fear

The Department of Justice has requested that the Census Bureau add questions about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Recent reports suggest that high-level Trump Administration officials are behind this request with the intention to skew the census for political gain. Asking questions about citizenship status may mean that many immigrants (whether undocumented or not) will not fill out the entire Census due to fears that their information will be handed over to other government agencies, putting them and their families at risk. While the Census Bureau is legally required to protect the information collected in the Census, these fears are not without merit. During World War II, the Census Bureau was involved in rounding up Japanese-Americans and sending them to internment camps. Additionally, undercounting immigrant populations will have a profound effect on congressional districts as well as how federal funds are distributed.

Limiting race and ethnicity options, ignoring complex identities

There has been a decades long effort by advocates to combine the race and ethnicity questions on the Census and to add more categories to better represent the many identities we hold. Under the Obama Administration, many of these changes were recommended for the 2020 Census. However, under the Trump Administration, the Census Bureau announced that these recommendations are not moving forward. There is a wealth of research (including research by the Census Bureau itself) that supports the need to update and combine the race and ethnicity questions. By holding on to outdated understandings of race and ethnicity, the Census will ignore the changing and complex racial makeup of this country.

How do changes to the Census get made?

  1. The Census Bureau makes decisions about changes to the Census. Currently, the Census Bureau does not have a Director and a controversial figure just withdrew his name to be Deputy Director.
  2. Those changes must fall within standards set by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB is headed by Mick Mulvaney who is likely to not be supportive of any changes that advance equity. Mulvaney is a Tea Party Conservative who wants to cut funding for vital services such as social security, medical research, and diabetes treatment.
  3. Changes are then sent to Congress, by the end of March this year. Congress can directly legislate changes to the Census, though this is rarely used. Usually, Congress just makes recommendations to OMB.
  4. Final decisions about the Census are then in the hands of the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. National groups advocating to increase the budget and not include the citizenship question are targeting Ross in their lobbying efforts.

How some are protecting the Census count

The national organization leading much of the advocacy work for an accurate census is the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. In 12 states — including CA, NY, MI, NC, MS, and TX — there are state tables coordinating efforts to reach hard-to-count populations.

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