The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abrupt change to census deadline could result in an undercount of Latino and Black communities

Apartment buildings in the Bronx last month, where there has been an alarmingly low response rates to the census. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Census experts and advocates warn that the Trump administration’s decision to end the decennial count a month earlier than expected will result in a dramatic undercount of Black and Latino communities across the country, which could have grave effects on federal funding and political representation in their neighborhoods.

They point in particular to alarmingly low response rates in places such as the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the Bronx in New York, where the coronavirus pandemic had already interrupted outreach in some of the country’s hardest-to-count census tracts. National nonprofits and community activists are putting together urgent persuasion campaigns in an attempt to cram three months of work into two — driving through neighborhoods with bullhorns taped to vehicles, pouring funds into geotagged digital advertising, and phone-banking.

“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and they might be shortchanging every Latino community for 10 years to come. This is cruel,” said Lizette Escobedo, who leads the census program for NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan Latino rights organization.

The census represents an important fault line in the battle over structural racism and equity, with high stakes. It dictates the allocation of federal dollars and influences everything from infrastructure investments to education programs like free and reduced lunch to public health-care spending. The data is also used when deciding the boundaries of legislative districts.

People who do not self-report their information are usually visited by a Census Bureau worker. Because of delays caused by the pandemic, the federal government earlier this year extended the deadline for in-person follow-up, from mid-August to Oct. 31. But the administration abruptly announced last week that it would require data collection to end by Sept. 30 instead.

By law, the final census count must be delivered to the president by Dec. 31 of the year it takes place. Census Bureau officials have said the shortened deadline is part of an effort to meet that requirement. The bureau declined to comment about the risk of undercounting communities of color, but issued a statement announcing it would hire more workers to achieve a complete count.

Escobedo and others said they believe the decision was motivated by a desire to suppress the political power of communities of color, which traditionally vote Democratic.

Even in non-pandemic times, the likeliest communities to be undercounted are typically also the most marginalized in the country, said Diana Elliott, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. That includes communities of color, people living in rural areas or without permanent addresses, high-poverty neighborhoods, immigrant communities and places where government distrust is high. People in majority White and affluent communities, by contrast, are likelier to be counted.

“If certain areas are not represented with their full accurate count, that means their funding will be diminished as well,” Elliott said. “I think, for example, of the Rio Grande Valley. That area of Texas will get less money than, say, the suburbs of Dallas. And that’s not really a fair and equitable distribution of resources.”

Critics have previously accused the Trump administration of politicizing the census. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the census from asking participants if they are American citizens, which activists and experts said would discourage undocumented people from participating.

Last month, President Trump signed a memorandum in support of excluding the estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the country from the count used to apportion congressional districts. Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of state attorneys general, have filed lawsuits to block the shift in policy.

The administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants, a radical departure from past policy, has support among some conservatives. Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said he believes including them in the count unfairly dilutes the political power of American citizens.

“None of them have any right to representation in Congress because they are not citizens of the United States,” said von Spakovsky. “If you got rid of noncitizens in the apportionment process, California would probably lose five congressional seats.”

The new deadline, however, could disenfranchise American citizens and legal residents, too.

Four previous Census Bureau directors testified at a hearing last month that the shorter time frame is likely to lead to an inaccurate count. The State Data Center, a partnership between the Census Bureau and U.S. states and territories to make census data available to the public, also opposes ending field activities a month earlier, said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties.

“At this point, we’re seeing an undercount of Black communities everywhere. Deep undercounts of places in the South,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a nonprofit organization working to maximize the census count among Black communities. “As Covid continues to rip through those communities, it is a very challenging thing to see communities that absolutely need resources that could be left out.”

On Wednesday, the National Congress of American Indians joined several other prominent Indigenous rights groups in denouncing the administration’s accelerated timeline, calling it a direct threat to their well-being during a public health crisis that may have lingering effects for years.

“Our tribal nations and tribal communities have been ravaged by COVID-19, and an extension of the Census enumeration period was a humane lifeline during an unprecedented global health catastrophe,” the groups said in a statement. “An inaccurate Census count will decimate our ability to advocate for necessary services for our most vulnerable communities.”

Several experts said they are especially worried about the Latino count in Texas, where more than a dozen Latino-heavy counties have the lowest participation rates in the country.

One in four Texans live in hard-to-count areas where poverty, rural, and a lack of Internet connections drive down census participation, said Katie Martin Lightfoot, who coordinates the grass-roots Texas Counts campaign, an informal committee that brings together local leaders and census organizers across the state. Data shows that Latinos in particular have the lowest response rate statewide.

Data experts on her team have estimated that even a 1 percent undercount would lead to a loss of $300 million per year for the next decade.

In some ways, the deck was already stacked for a potential undercount there. While other states dedicate tens of millions of dollars to census outreach efforts meant to boost the count, the Texas state legislature provided no funding at all. That left the task of encouraging participation up to local philanthropies and nonprofits, Martin said.

“Think about covid-19 and the pandemic and how much we’re relying on these resources now. And people are still going to need those services, and that burden will fall on the state and the local governments,” she said.

The overall self-response rate in Texas so far is 58 percent, compared to 64 percent by this point in 2010, said Martin. But as few as 37 percent of households have responded in some counties in the Rio Grande Valley.

About 63 percent of all households in the United States have completed the census, according to the Census Bureau.

The new timeline has jolted state and local officials even in places where abundant resources have been allocated toward the count.

California invested $187 million in outreach efforts to directly target the hardest-to-count communities. Officials in California say the new deadline will present significant challenges but they are confident about their response rate so far given the geographic and demographic diversity of the state.

“The next few months are very critical. Our job is made more difficult with some of the most recent actions by the federal government, and so we want to focus on tactics that are showing to be really effective, like phone banking with a patch through to the U.S. Census Bureau,” said Maricela Rodriguez, who works in the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Laura Russell, a census coordinator for Carroll County, Md., said the mostly White, suburban county has one of the best self-response rates in the nation. And yet even there, officials worry about an undercount, especially among preschool children and the area’s small Latino community. They are mindful, she said, that they could lose up to $1,800 a head in federal funding.

Russell said county officials and volunteers have approached Latino community leaders and businesses to help solicit responses. All materials about the census were handed out in Spanish and English. The committee also worked with Latino-owned businesses and worked with the faith community, such as the Catholic Church.

“I think the number one reason [Latinos have a low response rate] is they’re afraid of the government. They don’t want anybody to know they’re here or to ask them questions,” she said.

The pandemic has derailed even carefully tailored plans and tried-and-true methods of reaching these communities, including canvassing events outside grocery stores or census-focused events at local parks.

In New York, political leaders had signaled the 2020 Census was a significant priority, but those plans largely fell by the wayside when New York City became the initial epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. Escobedo, who runs NALEO’s census outreach, said many of the funds the state had allocated toward the census were never distributed.

While Escobedo had prepared for some of the political challenges the census has faced this year, she could not have anticipated the pandemic.

“Latinos are dying at a faster rate. Latinos are suffering financially more than anyone else,” she said. “So now you’re going into a community where you’re reminding them the census funds schools and funds transportation. And they’re thinking, ‘I don’t really have the time and space to think about the census.’ ”

But the administration’s revised timeline, she said, is in some ways more troubling than the disruptions caused by the pandemic because it is a self-inflicted wound coming from within the government.

“Folks are actually terrified of what a full count of Latinos can mean. But we’re not going anywhere. This is our country. We are American as everyone else. This fight doesn’t keep me up at night, it wakes me up every morning,” she said. “I want to make sure that I can take that political potential and turn it into political will.”