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Think elections are controversial? Try the census

U.S Census workers transfer birth data to punched cards, ca. 1940. (Photo: Everett Historical, via Shutterstock)

The once-a-decade national census is still nearly two years away but it’s already generating heated discussion.

There’s a lot at stake here.

Among the myriad concerns raised so far is that this survey will be the first conducted in part online. People are also expressing alarm over the inclusion of a new citizenship question, the wording for questions on race and ethnicity and the way prisoners are counted.

The goal of the census is to get a snapshot of American life as of April 1, 2020. People will be asked to take 10 minutes giving their age, sex, relationship, homeowner status, race and whether they come from Hispanic origin.

The stakes are high because census data is used to determine congressional districts, distribute billions in federal funding for everything from health care to education and to plan for locations of schools and roads.

“It’s important that we get an accurate count so we get representation that reflects who is actually in the country,” said Tess Thorman, a research associate for the Public Policy Institute of California who helped write a fact sheet on the 2020 census.

She emphasized that the government relies on the census data for a full 10 years. “If the census is accurate, we distribute political representation for the decade in the way that we intend to distribute it; if the census is inaccurate, we do not.”

The goal of the census is to get a snapshot of American life as of April 1, 2020. People will be asked to take 10 minutes giving their age, sex, relationship, homeowner status, race and whether they come from Hispanic origin.  For the first time, people can choose to respond online, by phone or by mail.

Some also are concerned that people won’t want to participate in the census in any form because of they won’t want to answer a question about whether they are an American citizen.

The U.S. Census Bureau would like at least 55 percent of people to respond online to the survey because it’s the cheapest method and could save $5 billion. For those who don’t, staffers will have to follow up and ask for responses.

But Alana Golden, assistant director for marketing and communications for the 2020 Census in the governor’s planning and research office, cautioned that the online system hasn’t been tested. Not everyone has access to the Internet or is comfortable using it. Moreover, there could be concerns about cybersecurity.

Some also are concerned that people won’t want to participate in the census in any form because they won’t want to answer a question about whether they are an American citizen.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Trump Administration in March over the inclusion of the question because it could suppress an accurate count and threaten at least one of California’s seats in the House of Representatives.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others sued the U.S. Commerce Department this week, contending the citizenship question intentionally discriminates against immigrants. The Commerce Department has jurisdiction over the census.

Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a written statement that the Trump administration was “shamelessly weaponizing the census to wage its war on communities of color, immigrants and the poor.”

Historically the census has undercounted certain groups including Hispanics, African-Americans, young men and children, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“A population undercount not only threatens our economy, it jeopardizes our fair representation in Congress and our fundamental voting rights,” Becerra said in a statement.

The U.S. Census Bureau also sparked controversy by its decision not to change the wording on race and ethnic questions from the way it was stated in 2010.

In the 2020 census, people will first be asked their race and then if they are of Hispanic origin. While it is correct that Hispanic people can be black, white or of any race, many people nonetheless think of the term Hispanic as a race. Because of that in the race question, Hispanics sometimes check “some other race” rather than white or black.

“As a result, census statistics will continue to roil the public discussion of diversity, by exaggerating white decline and the imminence of a majority-minority United States,” Richard Alba, a sociology professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, wrote in a recent Newsweek article.

Historically the census has undercounted certain groups including Hispanics, African-Americans, young men and children, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.  The institute said that in 2016, 75 percent of Californians (30.2 million people) belonged to one of those groups. Thorman explained that members of those groups may be undercounted because they don’t receive notification of the census or because they are living temporarily with friends or family and don’t think they need to be counted or because the census form is in a language they don’t understand.

Another area of concern is the way prisoners are counted. As in the past, the 2020 census will count inmates as residents of whatever prison they are in, rather than their hometowns. Boarding students by comparison are considered residents of their hometown rather than the school.

The Prison Policy Initiative expressed disappointment in the practice.

“Continuing this practice will ensure another decade of ‘prison gerrymandering’ that unjustly awards extra political power to the regions that host prisons, perverting the principles of equal representation,” the group said in a statement.

To ensure California has as accurate and complete a count as possible, Gov. Jerry Brown recently created the California Complete Count Committee with members from all regions of the state to come up with ways to ensure an accurate count. Brown has also proposed allocating $10 million to local governments to update census list and $40.3 million for a statewide education and outreach program on the census. “It is vitally important that California do everything it can to ensure that every Californian is counted in the upcoming census,” Brown said in a statement.

Ed’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories that Capitol Weekly will publish on census-related issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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