Census 2020 Undercount
The Good, the Bad and What We Learned
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.