Advocates fear the consequences of stopping the count early could be devastating, particularly for low-income people, people of color, and immigrants.
The US Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the Trump administration could end the 2020 US Census two weeks ahead of schedule, risking an undercount that advocates fear could disproportionately harm Black and Latino Americans.
The Court blocked a lower court order that required the Census Bureau to continue with the count as initially planned through the end of October due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the decision, the Bureau announced that self-response and field data collection operations would now conclude this week. Individuals who have not completed the census can do so by phone until Friday at 2 a.m. Eastern Time, online until 6 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday, or mail a paper response as long as it is postmarked by Thursday.
The Supreme Court did not provide an explanation for its decision, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only judge to issue a dissent. “The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable,” she wrote. “And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”
Sotomayor’s concerns are shared by advocacy groups focused on the once-a-decade count of all people living in the United States and its territories. They fear the consequences of stopping the count early could be devastating, particularly for low-income people, people of color, and immigrants, who for a variety of socioeconomic and cultural reasons, are historically undercounted to begin with.
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“The Supreme Court’s decision today is unconscionable,” John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Supreme Court’s ruling today allows Trump to cheat hard-to-count communities of color out of the resources needed for everything from health care and education to housing and transportation for the next ten years.”
As Yang points out, accurate counts are crucial because census results determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is spent every year, including how much goes to state and local governments to operate programs like Medicaid, free school meals, unemployment insurance, and food assistance. These programs, which are a lifeline for many Americans under normal circumstances, have become all the more critical during the coronavirus pandemic.
The census also plays a critical role in political representation, as results determine how many seats each state receives in the US House of Representatives. They are also used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which can determine which laws are passed on the state or federal level.
The count has long been a nonpartisan effort, but under President Donald Trump, the census has been politicized.
The deadline for completing the count was originally pushed back from August to Oct. 31 after the pandemic impacted census operations in the spring. Owing to that delay, the Census Bureau said it would delay delivering population figures used by the House and states for reapportionment and redistricting until April 2021. But in August, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the Oct. 31 deadline moved up a month to Sept. 30, claiming that ending the count early was necessary to deliver initial population totals to the president by the legal deadline of Dec. 31.
Ross’s order came against the advice of career census experts, who said it would affect the accuracy of the effort, disproportionately impacting counts of the hardest-to-reach households, which tend to be people of color and low-income Americans.
The Trump administration has also sought to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count, which has never been done before. That effort is currently the subject of another lawsuit that is set to be heard by the Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
Advocates fear that these efforts collectively represent something of a political power grab by the Trump administration at the expense of people of color and immigrants.
“There are definitely forces at play that don’t want certain communities to be counted,” Rebecca DeHart, CEO of Fair Count, told COURIER earlier this year. “They don’t want the resources to go to those communities. They don’t want the political power to be shared within those communities, and so it would be very easy to scare people off.”
The Impact of an Undercount
What would an undercount actually cost a state or a community in terms of dollars and cents? A lot. In 2010 for example, Texas was undercounted by nearly 239,500 residents, or a shade under 1%. A 2018 study from George Washington University put an exact, per-person cost, assuming a 1% undercount: $1161.
This time around, a 1% undercount could cost Texas $300 million in federal funding per year, according to an estimate from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. That would be $3 billion in lost funding over the next decade for programs like Medicaid, Medicare, public housing assistance, school lunch programs, and food stamps.
The political consequences could also be devastating, especially for traditionally Democratic states. If undocumented immigrants are not included in the count, states like California, New York, and Texas could lose seats in the House, while heavily white states like Alabama and Ohio could gain a seat. Such a shake-up would also impact the number of votes states receive via the electoral college, which determines the winner of presidential races.
If the White House gets the population totals by the end of the year, the president could report them to Congress in January, as soon as the next session of Congress begins, but before the inauguration of the next president. This means even if Trump loses to Democrat Joe Biden in November’s general election, he could oversee the final reporting of the number of representatives to which each state is entitled.
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Julie Menin, director of NYC Census 2020, called the decision to end the count early “unconscionable,” and blasted the Trump administration’s politicization of the count.
“The census, a Democratic exercise that has taken place since 1790, has been stolen by the Trump administration, which has interfered at every step of the way, and now, the census has been cut short during a global pandemic,” Menin said in a statement.
The Census Bureau claimed on Tuesday that “well over 99.9%” of housing units were accounted for in the Census, but that figure has been questioned by experts who believe it to be a grossly inaccurate representation, as it does not cover households that have actually completed Census forms. Instead, it appears to include those checked off the list of uncounted households by any means, regardless of accuracy.
Sotomayor also noted the importance of a fully accurate count, writing in her dissent that “even a fraction of a percent of the Nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted. And significantly, the percentage of nonresponses is likely much higher among marginalized populations and in hard-to-count areas, such as rural and tribal lands.”
The stakes of an accurate count in are critical, as DeHart noted in the spring.
“It is really the only thing that can make decisions for a community a decade at a time,” she said. “We get one chance to get this right and if we don’t get it right, then communities will be suffering for a decade to come.”
You can complete the census online or via phone by calling 844-330-2020 for English or 844-468-2020 for Spanish. If you reside in Puerto Rico or in the US but speak another language, you can find more information about which number to call here.