What would an inaccurate census mean for the United States?

Mike Bebernes
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Getting an accurate count of all Americans for the census every 10 years is an enormous task under any circumstances. In 2020 it may prove to be impossible. The combined challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and policy changes by the Trump administration have some experts worried that this year’s census may be the least accurate count in modern history.

In a normal year, census data collection starts in January and is completed by the end of July. The Census Bureau then has until Dec. 31 to process the data and report its final count to the president. In April, as the first wave of coronavirus cases was starting to peak, the bureau pushed its data-gathering deadline to Oct. 31. But then the Trump administration abruptly changed course, saying the count should end in September. A legal challenge to that decision kept the count going for two more weeks, but it officially ended on Thursday. A plan to push the reporting date to April 2021 was also abandoned.

The Census Bureau says it has accounted for 99.9 percent of U.S. households, but many experts say there are reasons to question the accuracy of that data. About two-thirds of households self-report their census information. The rest is collected by an army of census takers who go door-to-door conducting millions of in-person interviews. With the pandemic making that task more challenging, the bureau may be relying on less accurate data sources like conversations with neighbors, information from landlords and statistical modeling, experts say.

Why there’s debate

Conducting a count of who lives in the U.S. and where is more than a matter of curiosity. Census data is used to make major decisions about how political power and money are distributed throughout the country. The census count is used to draw up districts for the House of Representatives and state legislatures. It also determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending a year is divided among the states. An undercount of just 1 percent can cause a state to miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars to fund schools, health care, infrastructure and other programs.

Some of the president’s critics say that may very well be the point. The most difficult people for census takers to count tend to be people of color (especially Blacks and Latinos), immigrants and the poor — groups that are overrepresented in major urban areas in blue states. Whether the undercount is deliberate or not, an inaccurate census would likely mean that political representation and billions of dollars in funding that would go to communities in Democratic-run areas would instead be distributed to Republican-leaning jurisdictions where the count is more thorough.

After unsuccessfully trying to add a citizenship question to this year’s census, the Trump administration is lobbying to exclude undocumented immigrants from population counts. On its own, the move could cost immigrant-heavy states like California multiple congressional seats.

What’s next

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether excluding undocumented immigrants from the census is constitutional at the end of November. Depending on the ruling in that case, there may be further legal and legislative battles if Democrats feel the census has been manipulated.


Political power meant for Democrats would instead be transferred to Republicans

“Because [undercounted] groups live predominantly in urban areas, an undercount also would be likely to dilute the political power of Democrats who disproportionately represent those areas. For the same reason, Mr. Trump’s plan to exclude unauthorized immigrants from population totals used to allot political power would probably further dilute Democratic representation in many — though hardly all — areas with large immigrant populations.” — Adam Liptak and Michael Wines, New York Times

The politicization of the census shows that nothing is safe from partisan manipulation

“It’s a crucial task, and it stands for what I’ve long imagined is the great strength of this nation: a dedication to facts on the ground and a willingness to reassess and change direction, to grow with and adapt to reality. I’m not so sure that’s an American strength anymore.” — David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

The only people who benefit from an inaccurate census are Republican politicians

“The only perspective from which this is not a potential disaster is that of Republicans seeking maximum partisan advantage.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Parts of the country will miss out on trillions of dollars in much-needed funding

“We’ll see the impact to our roads, our health care system, our education system and everywhere else where we rely upon federal dollars.” — Tony Quinn and Marva Diaz, CalMatters

An inaccurate count would make inequality worse

“Without demographic data for the hardest to count — young people, renters, low-income, Black and brown communities — resources will not get to those who need it the most, locking in inequality exacerbated by the pandemic.” — Cynthia Dai, San Francisco Chronicle

The census may be the subject of a long legal battle in the near future

“There are going to be undercounts of communities of color. The only question is how large — and is it so large that action needs to be taken in the form of litigation or legislation.” — American Statistical Association President-elect Robert J. Santos to Bloomberg

An inaccurate count would severely hamper scientific research

“Population counts are used as the basis for the next 10 years of population projections, and those projections are used for really important studies.” — American Statistical Association President-elect Robert J. Santos to Bloomberg

The political power of the country’s growing Latino population would be stunted

“For the Latino community in particular, we know that there’s so many changing demographics and such a growing population. We cannot afford a skewed or inaccurate portrait of our country because it threatens to erase the beautiful diversity within our country, particularly within the Latino community.” — Census Counts campaign director Beth Lynk to NBC News

Bad census data can have a significant economic impact

“The census numbers are used to plan where housing is built, where hospitals are built, where schools are built. These are public — and even private — investments. If you’re running a big corporation, you'd like to know where your labor force lives before you open up a plant or facility somewhere. And if you get that wrong and you’re leaving out these people who are going to be your potential workers or customers, that’s a problem.” — Demographer William H. Frey to Politico

Many Republican-leaning areas of the country would also be harmed

“If we're looking at this as a purely political power grab by the Trump admin/GOP, which it is, it's worth noting this is going to hurt rural, GOP communities too.” — HuffPost political reporter Jennifer Bendery

A deliberately undercounted census represents an attack on democracy

“It is a basic principle of democracy that power and resources be distributed based on population — one person, one vote, one equal share. As Republicans face the reality of a demographic shift away from their ageing white base, they would rather deny the very existence of groups to which they are unfavorable — particularly immigrants — than share power and resources.” — Andrew Gawthorpe, Guardian

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