Census 2020 Undercount

The Good, the Bad and What We Learned

Posted December 13, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The image is a close-up shot of a hand, holding a pen. The pen hovers above a blank questionnaire. Underneath the questionnaire is a form that says, "United States Census 2020."

The 2020 U.S. cen­sus may have under­count­ed chil­dren — as well as peo­ple of col­or, peo­ple liv­ing in hard-to-count set­tings and oth­ers — at unprece­dent­ed lev­els. This was large­ly, though not entire­ly, due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, which took hold in Amer­i­ca less than a month before the once-a-decade pop­u­la­tion count was set to begin in earnest.

But the results could have been even worse with­out the work of advo­cates for these fre­quent­ly over­looked pop­u­la­tions at the nation­al, state and local lev­els. There are lessons to be car­ried for­ward from the robust col­lab­o­ra­tions and sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments of resources seen dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for the cen­sus, accord­ing to researchers.

Why the Cen­sus Always Matters

Each decen­ni­al cen­sus deter­mines how much fed­er­al fund­ing states, local­i­ties and school dis­tricts will receive each year for the sub­se­quent decade for every­thing from hous­ing to health care.

The cen­sus also deter­mines how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and is used by state law­mak­ers to draw leg­isla­tive dis­tricts. So, when chil­dren of col­or, chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies and low-income chil­dren aren’t count­ed, their com­mu­ni­ties’ needs are not fair­ly rep­re­sent­ed in our democ­ra­cy. State and local offi­cials from Mass­a­chu­setts to Cal­i­for­nia are already try­ing to deter­mine the impact this will have on their abil­i­ty to ensure that fam­i­lies can thrive.

Prepar­ing to Avoid an Under­count in the 2020 Census

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion set forth many of the antic­i­pat­ed chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties in its 2018 KIDS COUNT Data Book, open­ing with a reminder that the 2010 cen­sus failed to count more than 2 mil­lion chil­dren younger than age 5, large num­bers of chil­dren of col­or and kids in immi­grant fam­i­lies. A video accom­pa­ny­ing the report and dis­trib­uted to Casey’s net­works nation­wide aimed to explain the impor­tance of the count in ways that com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies could under­stand. In ear­ly 2019, the Foun­da­tion part­nered with the Poyn­ter Insti­tute on two work­shops for jour­nal­ists aimed at fos­ter­ing a deep­er under­stand­ing of the poten­tial undercount.

Casey engaged deeply before, dur­ing and after the 2020 cen­sus with the Fun­ders Com­mit­tee for Civic Participation’s Democ­ra­cy Fun­ders Col­lab­o­ra­tive Cen­sus Sub­group, made up of numer­ous nation­al and region­al foun­da­tions con­cerned about an accu­rate count. Sev­er­al opin­ion pieces authored by Casey and oth­er fun­ders made the case for a fair and com­plete count.

Over­com­ing Chal­lenges to the Cen­sus in 2020

COVID-19 was the most daunt­ing obsta­cle faced dur­ing the cen­sus. As one post-count eval­u­a­tion of out­reach efforts notes, advo­cates were forced to adjust years’ worth of plan­ning focused exten­sive­ly on in-per­son cen­sus out­reach in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. To com­ply with local and state guide­lines and pro­tect the health of staff, vol­un­teers and local res­i­dents, groups shift­ed to dig­i­tal forms of out­reach and engage­ment, phone bank­ing, and tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing to encour­age cen­sus par­tic­i­pa­tion in his­tor­i­cal­ly under­count­ed communities.”

The coro­n­avirus was not the only hur­dle encoun­tered, though. A Trump admin­is­tra­tion pro­pos­al to add a ques­tion about cit­i­zen­ship was wide­ly viewed as a trans­par­ent attempt to increase fear in immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and reduce immi­grant par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cen­sus,” and although it was ulti­mate­ly aban­doned, the effects of months of pub­lic debate are dif­fi­cult to know. Casey signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief argu­ing against includ­ing the question.

The Cen­sus Bureau director’s sud­den 2017 res­ig­na­tion, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters that dis­placed fam­i­lies and what experts believe were delib­er­ate efforts to starve get-out-the-count efforts in some states were among addi­tion­al issues doc­u­ment­ed by advo­cates.

Prepar­ing for the 2030 Census

A report com­mis­sioned by the Cen­sus Sub­group lists more than 100 rec­om­men­da­tions for the 2030 cen­sus from phil­an­thropies, phil­an­thropy-serv­ing orga­ni­za­tions, com­mu­ni­ty groups and oth­ers. They include:

  • com­bin­ing race and His­pan­ic ori­gin in the same cen­sus ques­tion and adding a Mid­dle East­ern and North African category;
  • increas­ing the num­ber of lan­guages in which offi­cial forms, tele­phone assis­tance and oth­er resources are available;
  • strength­en­ing part­ner­ship pro­grams, includ­ing those with experts focused on child and fam­i­ly issues, and begin­ning the hir­ing process for region­al, local and trib­al spe­cial­ists three to four years before the 2030 census;
  • increas­ing adver­tis­ing tar­get­ed to pop­u­la­tion groups at high­er risk of being missed in the cen­sus, includ­ing the par­ents of young chil­dren; and
  • expand­ing research into the fac­tors that con­tribute to dis­pro­por­tion­ate under­counts of cer­tain pop­u­la­tions, includ­ing peo­ple of col­or, renters and young children

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, advo­cates and — most impor­tant­ly — com­mu­ni­ties them­selves will have to live with the uneven results of the 2020 cen­sus for the next ten years. Doing well under the cir­cum­stances last year was impor­tant; doing even bet­ter in 2030 will be essen­tial to the well-being of chil­dren, young peo­ple and fam­i­lies nationwide.

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