Experts call for reform after Census Bureau admits undercounting communities of color

The U.S. Census Bureau under fire
Census Bureau under fire: Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, and Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Several justice experts are now calling for reform of the U.S. census after its bureau admitted in a recent report that it undercounted Black, Latino and Indigenous Americans as part of the 2020 census, while overcounting white and Asian Americans.

The census results are far-reaching throughout the federal government and American society. The data, collected once a decade, is used to determine how much political representation communities receive, how districts are drawn, and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding is allocated across the country for basic services like education, food and health care.

“[The census] is the foundation of our democracy,” Kelly Percival, senior counsel and census expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Yahoo News. “And so when we know inequalities are happening like this, we're baking inequity into our democracy from the start if we don’t fix this problem.”

Census 2020 employees helps a New Yorker fill out a census form
Census Bureau employees help a New Yorker fill out a census form in September 2020. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the census released its “Post Enumeration Survey,” which randomly selected geographic areas to resurvey, and found that it undercounted about 5 percent of Latinos — or about 1 in 20 — a threefold increase over the previous census. The undercount of Americans who identify as “some other race” shot up from 1.63% to 4.34%, while the undercounts for Native American and Black populations were higher than in the 2010 census but not statistically significant, according to the bureau.

The census also erred in measuring white and Asian Americans, but by overcounting them. White Americans were overcounted in 2020 by 1.64%, and Asian Americans were overcounted by 2.62%.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, called the results a “five-alarm fire.”

“We can no longer rely on the traditional methods of mailing forms out to households and encouraging the public to respond — and conducting door-to-door interviews with households that do not complete these forms,” Vargas said in a press release.

A voter goes to the polls
A voter goes to the polls in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. (David McNew/Getty Images)

“The warnings we gave, the concerns that we raised, were absolutely true, and today we find ourselves with a census that is neither complete nor accurate,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said on a call with reporters last week.

The census is prone to undercounting communities of color due to a range of factors, including the increased difficulty in reaching some populations and distrust of government surveys and agents. But according to Percival, the 2020 census was only the second since World War II to be measurably less accurate than the one before it.

The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic added a huge obstacle to the latest census, which was conducted during the first year of the virus’s destruction, when many people suddenly moved locations and were less likely to open their door to government canvassers.

“The challenges are pretty consistent from decade to decade in getting people to respond to a survey and participate,” Jennifer Reichert, chief of the Decennial Census Management Division of the Census Bureau, told Yahoo News. “Government surveys [in particular] are challenging because some people don’t trust the government, and those things were exacerbated in 2020.”

Human and civil rights leaders testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee
Human and civil rights leaders testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in January 2020 about how the federal government could obtain better census data from underreported groups. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Another obstacle to an accurate 2020 count was former President Donald Trump’s administration, which openly politicized the census. Among other things, Trump pushed to add a citizenship question to the form and attempted to remove undocumented Americans from the count overall — both of which may have discouraged immigrants from responding to census outreach.

Behind the scenes, the Trump administration “alarmed career civil servants at the Census Bureau by not only ending the 2020 national head count early, but also pressuring them to alter plans for protecting people's privacy and producing accurate data,” NPR reported earlier this year, citing newly released emails.

But despite the known undercount issues this year, the census tallies will not be budging. Reichert said the focus is on improving the next census’s accuracy.

“We will not be changing out 2020 counts or redistricting data, because despite the challenges ... they were determined to be fit to use,” she said. “That’s not to say we don’t have coverage issues, and we spend the entire decade adjusting where we see fit.”

Protesters outside the Supreme Court
Protesters outside the Supreme Court as the court considers a case involving the right to ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Advocates are quick to point out that the survey has huge consequences for the communities it seeks to tally. The totals determine funding to more than 100 programs, according to the bureau, “including Medicaid, Head Start, block grant programs for community mental health services, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.”

Beyond that, states gain and lose congressional districts, significantly influencing whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives. And the shape of both federal and state legislative districts is determined by the count, determining which communities get more and less representation.

“The errors represent a critical issue for our democracy,” professors G. Cristina Mora of the University of California, Berkeley, and Julie Dowling of the University of Illinois wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “They make communities invisible and trigger losses that will be felt for generations to come.”

A bilingual election official
A bilingual election official at a polling place in a predominantly Latino district of Los Angeles. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Some leaders are calling for more systemic reforms of the census to prevent these kinds of errors in future counts.

“Both Congress and the bureau need to think about putting some guardrails in place that would safeguard the independence of the bureau so it wouldn’t be subjected to things like political meddling, but also to look at its current methodologies and see if things can be updated for the 21st century,” Percival said.

“The stakes of this really couldn’t be higher,” she added. “We're really talking about things that affect people’s daily lives.”

An information table for the 2020 census
An information table for the 2020 census in Reading, Pa. (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, told the Washington Post that the bureau “needs to explore new methods for improving the accuracy of the count in all areas.”

Lowenthal continued: “And Congress needs to put partisan politics aside and give the bureau flexibility to consider all options that meet rigorous scientific standards, including the possibility of a statistical adjustment.”


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images