With the 2020 Census, three years out, civil rights groups and census experts are sounding the alarm that pending actions by the Trump administration and Congress could severely hamper an accurate count of all communities.
"Congress' failure over the past few years to pay for rigorous 2020 Census planning, and now the Trump Administration's insufficient budget request for 2018, will strike at the heart of operations specifically designed to make the census better in historically undercounted communities," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director with the House Subcommittee on Census and Population.
She spoke during a national press call hosted by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The call was moderated by Wade Henderson, president and CEO of Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
"The decennial census is by far the most important and critical tool in our country to ensure that diverse communities are equitably served with government resources and that the American people are adequately represented at all levels of government," said Henderson. "The census is required by the U.S. Constitution and policymakers are responsible for making sure the job gets done right. All of us must insist that they do that because there are no do-overs."
Currently, the Census Bureau is being funded at 2016 levels, as Congress has not approved final spending bills for 2017. The Bureau has requested a 25 percent "ramp up" for preparation activities. But President Trump's 2018 budget proposal recommends keeping funding levels where they are currently, $1.5 billion.
A ‘major civil rights issue'
Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office deemed the 2020 Census a "high-risk federal program," in part because the U.S. Census Bureau is planning to utilize several never-before-used strategies – such as collecting responses over the internet – but may not have the time and resources to adequately develop and test them.
Budget limitations have already hindered major preparations, including the cancellation of tests of new methods in Puerto Rico and on two American Indian reservations, and resulted in mailed tests rather than electronic or in-person ones, as well as delayed community outreach and advertising campaigns.
Advocates say current funding shortfalls will result in many people – particularly Black, Latino and rural households, and families with young children – being missed by the count. Arturo Vargas is the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. He calls the underfunding of the census a major civil rights issue for Latinos and other communities of color.
Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento NAACP, worked as an outreach worker during the last census and has heard and seen all of the reasons why Black people are often reluctant to participate. Williams said there are a lot of false rumors about the census. These include participating in the census will enable the government to track you down for child support or sign you up for the military. Sometimes Black people fear participating in the census might get them kicked out of their apartment if more than one family is living there, she said.
Williams insisted that census information is kept confidential and it was important for Black people to participate, so the government knows how to allocate resources.
"If they don't know you're there, they can't allocate resources," Williams said.
Resources can include everything from how many to schools or police officers to assign to an area to determining if a street needs a stoplight. Williams also said that businesses use census information to decide if they are going to open a venue in a certain location.
She also said that diversity is also an issue. Many Black people are suspicious if a white person with a clipboard shows up and says they're with the government and need their information.
For each uncounted person, state governments and communities lose thousands of federal aid dollars, which go to anti-poverty programs, education, infrastructure, emergency services, healthcare and other programs.
An undercount can also trigger changes in political representation – from redrawn district lines to fewer seats in local, state and federal offices, often diminishing the power of communities of color.
Advocates say that new cost-saving strategies like collecting responses over the internet rather than paper forms require investments on the front end. Delayed preparations cannot be made up later. Surveys administered online may also be hampered by the "digital divide" if adequate field tests are not taken.
Census advocates are eyeing several other threats to the decennial count and its yearly counterpart, the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is sent yearly to about 1 in 38 households to collect demographic data on everything from employment and home-ownership to educational attainment.
Republicans in Congress are pushing to make participation in the ACS voluntary which could severely damage the data, says John C. Yang, president and executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
"The ACS updates the Census throughout the decade. As such it is required by law and must remain so to provide the vital info needed from our communities," Yang said, emphasizing that the ACS is the only source for detailed data of ethnic subgroups, such as Vietnamese of Chinese descent.
Census advocates are also on high alert and alarmed because an unsigned leaked executive order, titled "Protecting American Workers from Immigrant Labor," referenced a directive to the Census Bureau to collect data on immigration status.