Fear of a census undercount

“I know for a fact that a lot of community members wanted to come today, but they are scared,” said City Councilmember Luis Chavez, who gave a speech about the importance of a full 2020 census count to the near-empty room.

Chavez, a former teacher, recalled that before his speech, he got a call from a 17-year-old girl who once had been his student. She apologized for not coming to the event; she said she feared showing up might risk her mother being sent back to Mexico.

FRESNO, Calif. – There was free barbecue, a ballet folklórico performance and speeches by local elected officials and community leaders.

Sponsors of the Know Your Census Rights event at a yellow brick community center in a Latino neighborhood here had spent weeks planning for a bustling party.

Instead, the performers and speakers played to a room of vacant luncheon tables and unoccupied folding chairs. Stacks of hamburgers lay untouched. So did piles of informational pamphlets. Aside from the organizers and a handful of their friends, hardly anybody showed.

Here in heavily immigrant Fresno, the word “census” turned out to be something of a “Do Not Enter” sign.

“I know for a fact that a lot of community members wanted to come today, but they are scared,” said City Councilmember Luis Chavez, who gave a speech about the importance of a full 2020 census count to the near-empty room.

Chavez, a former teacher, recalled that before his speech, he got a call from a 17-year-old girl who once had been his student. She apologized for not coming to the event; she said she feared showing up might risk her mother being sent back to Mexico.

In Chavez’s mostly Latino district, people are wary of the census, he said, “because of that fear – of somehow being deported or being caught up in that sentiment that’s going on.  And I completely understand.”

The September 2019 party-that-barely-was in Fresno underscores challenges the 2020 census faces across the nation, whose count began in remote Alaska villages in late January.

Fresno, population 530,000, is a sprawling center of California agriculture, largely poor and Latino. In Fresno County, an estimated 1 in 12 people are undocumented immigrants. An accurate census count here could mean more political clout for the region and more funding for a long list of federal programs ranging from public transportation to highway repair and children’s health insurance.

But census outreach workers say many here are afraid to give information for the census, the once-a-decade survey of the American people – whether fearful for themselves or for immigrant members of their families.

They say President Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, his threats of mass deportations and his plan to use the census to identify noncitizens have heightened those fears.

It’s the same story in Latino communities across the United States.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Martha Sanchez, a community organizer in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, people associate the census with “talk about how the president hates immigrants, how he hates brown people, how we are all criminals.” That makes persuading Latinos to cooperate with the census a hard sell.

“They do not trust the federal government,” she said of Latinos in the region. When she encourages people to respond to the census, “They say, ‘I’m not going to answer it.’ ”

Back in 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would deploy crowdsourcing – then a popular buzzword – to help identify areas where people are hardest to count in order to deploy federal resources in those places. The bureau sponsored a $25,000 contest, called the Census Return Rate Challenge, in which data scientists competed to create a model that would predict how many people would respond to the census in a given area, in a gambit to identify the hardest-to-count areas nationwide. But that design challenge took place in an entirely different political climate.

The contest’s winner, William Bame, now says his work won’t be of much use in 2020 because it simply didn’t account for the impact of heightened fear among immigrants in the Trump era.

Participants at a census outreach event in Portland, Oregon, in April brainstorm ideas for how to increase participation in this year’s count. CREDIT: Nic Raingsey/Design Week Portland
Participants at a census outreach event in Portland, Oregon, in April brainstorm ideas for how to increase participation in this year’s count. CREDIT: Nic Raingsey/Design Week Portland


When Bame, a data scientist at the University of Maryland Medical System, built his model for the contest, “there wasn’t this sort of witch hunt going on,” he said. “I think that this fear is a different problem. It’s going to cause a different problem. People are going to be afraid to respond.”

In recent years, civil rights advocates have warned immigrants to avoid any unnecessary contact with federal officials, particularly U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Under the Trump administration we have told people, ‘Don’t open your door,’ because of the ICE raids,” said Sam Robles, advocacy director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit group. “Now we are in a key moment where nonprofits and community groups are working to change that narrative. Now we have to flip it.”

A national survey published by the Census Bureau last year captures these widespread confidentiality concerns.

Although federal law requires that census information be held in strict confidence and imposes criminal penalties on officials who violate that confidentiality, nearly a quarter of respondents said they feared their answers on the census questionnaire could be used against them in harmful ways. Only 68% of respondents said they were likely to fill out a census form.

The result could be an undercount worse than in previous years, said Mark Doms, who oversaw the Census Bureau from 2013 to 2015 while an official in the Obama administration. Millions of Americans – especially those living in immigrant communities rattled by the president’s rhetoric – may not be reflected in the final tallies.

An undercount on the scale some experts fear would roil many aspects of American life, says D. Sunshine Hillygus, a Duke University political scientist and an expert witness in a lawsuit the NAACP filed in 2018 contending that the Census Bureau’s preparations were so “conspicuously deficient” that it would fail to fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide a full count.

A failed census is like a massive act of miswiring: Decisions large and small by corporations, scientists, charities and governments at the municipal, county, state and federal level all will be based on the portrait of 2020 America contained in census data. A big undercount could mean bad planning up and down the line, warns Ryan Robinson, city demographer of Austin, Texas. It could skew political alignments for a generation, as lawmakers use incorrect population data to draw new legislative districts.

The Census Bureau declined interview requests, and spokesperson Burton Reist declined in a written statement to address the impact of fear on the 2020 count, except to note that the bureau conducted “rigorous and extensive research” to project its response rates, allowing it to “identify areas likely to need additional targeted marketing and field follow-up.”

‘The bureau didn’t get what it wanted’

The federal government allocates more than $900 billion in public spending each year based on census data, according to the Tax Policy Center. That money pays for a dizzying array of projects and programs that touch virtually every aspect of American life: expansion of public transit; repair of bridges and highways; allocation of Medicare, food stamps and unemployment insurance; support for education, from preschool through university; subsidies for school lunches, foster care, small businesses and domestic violence intervention; and much more.

Doms, the former Obama administration official, says 2020 may produce what’s called a “differential undercount,” in which people of color and the poor are overlooked, while wealthy people with multiple residences are counted multiple times.

The bureau acknowledged a differential undercount in 2010, but this year’s could be worse, Doms said. “States that are whiter get more representation. Meanwhile, the California Central Valley, with disproportionate Hispanic representation, or Hispanic areas of Arizona – those areas within the state legislature will also be underrepresented.”

“Not just underrepresented,” he added, but shorted on funding and services “every which way.”

In his statement to Reveal, Reist, the census spokesperson, said: “We go to extraordinary lengths to count everyone living in the country once, only once, and in the right place, including those hard-to-count populations.”

During early planning for the 2020 census, Doms said he and his colleagues argued that the bureau needed additional funding to test strategies and techniques for carrying out that mandate.

“Our argument was, spend now, save later,” he said. “But the bureau didn’t get what it wanted.”

Fearing just such an outcome, legislatures in 26 states voted to bolster federal outreach efforts by spending state funds to boost participation in the census. They are led by California, which is spending $187.2 million on outreach. In 2016, the state received more than $115 billion in federal aid that it can’t afford to lose. And even with an accurate census count, the state is at risk of losing a seat in Congress.

But 24 states are not spending anything on census outreach. Three have not even created complete count committees, as urged by the Census Bureau. By far the most populous of these is booming Texas, which, with an accurate count, could stand to gain as many as three seats in Congress. But an undercount could help Texas Republicans hold onto seats in the Legislature and Congress.

In August 2019, a census worker checks addresses as part of the years-long lead-up to the decennial population count. CREDIT: U.S. Census Bureau
In August 2019, a census worker checks addresses as part of the years-long lead-up to the decennial population count. CREDIT: U.S. Census Bureau

Since 1790, as required by the Constitution, the nation has conducted a census every 10 years. In recent decades, it has counted all U.S. residents, citizen or not, mailing out questionnaires to gather data about who Americans are and how they live and work. Census workers also have knocked on doors in an effort to get an accurate count.

As the nation has gotten larger and more linguistically diverse, counting everyone has become more expensive. The 1970 census cost over $1 billion in today’s dollars. In 2010, the cost ballooned to $13 billion.

For 2020, the Census Bureau planned to do the job for $14.1 billion, an increase of 8%. from a decade ago. Adjusted for inflation, though, the bureau actually planned to spend $1.2 billion less than in 2010. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office projected that the total 2020 cost probably would be closer to $15.6 billion.

To stay within budget, the bureau has cut back on hiring and invested heavily in tech, spending more than $800 million to integrate IT systems set up to make the count work smoothly and accurately. For the first time, the government plans to gather most of its data via online census forms, with phone calls and mail-in questionnaires used only as a backup. Reist said questionnaires still will be hand delivered in rural areas and those affected by national disasters.

This cost-saving measure, according to Doms, could increase response rates – but not for every community.

“Whites, on average, are more likely to be online,” Doms said. “Maybe that’s related to income, but that’s what the data point says. Providing technology is good. But it doesn’t address the differential undercount.”

Conducting the census largely online without adequate testing also opens the 2020 count to possible security breaches, Doms said.

“Imagine a bunch of people wanting to mess with this,” he said. “This is the first time it’s going to happen. So this is another area of risk.”

Among other money-saving strategies, the bureau will rely on administrative records and third-party data, rather than repeated follow-up visits by census workers, to pull in data from nonresponders, according to the NAACP’s 2018 lawsuit against the Census Bureau. That suit, unfolding in federal court in Maryland, alleges that the United States is poised to severely undercount nonwhites, “depriving them of their constitutional right to representation.”

The bureau is “unprepared to conduct the first-ever digital census” and has been “operating on the cheap,” the NAACP contends. “These deficiencies will result in a massive undercount of communities of color.” On Jan. 21, the NAACP filed a motion for a preliminary injunction requesting that the court order the bureau to increase its outreach expenditures.

The bureau has denied that the 2020 census is underfunded and argued that the courts have no power to declare a lack of funding unconstitutional.

The prospect of IT failures

Government watchdogs have expressed their own concerns about the census. Chief among them is the GAO, which twice has found that the 2020 census is vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” In a May 2019 report, the GAO questioned the reliability of the bureau’s new IT systems, noting that in 2017 and 2018, the bureau had scaled back field testing to save money. That made the prospect of IT failures more likely, the GAO said, leaving in doubt whether the bureau’s 52 different information technology systems would function as planned.

The threat of security breaches in a system that will contain personal information of the entire U.S. population is also of grave concern, according to the GAO, which found that the bureau may not have adequate security in place to prevent hacking or Russian-style “misinformation efforts.” The report found that “hiring freezes, budgetary constraints, and retirements” had left the bureau with inadequate technical staff during the ramp-up to this year’s count.

The Census Bureau has maintained it will overcome these challenges with innovative survey methods.

“A year before the census is conducted, we are on track,” bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in April. “We are confident that our early planning is going to pay off.”

But some of the same scientists who’ve been involved in the bureau’s technical innovations have cast doubt on whether they’re sufficient to bring the 2020 effort over the finish line.

Despite the project’s new emphasis on tech, the budget for research and development appears to have dwindled, said Don Dillman, a former bureau scientist who convened a conference on the topic last year.

For prior counts, he said, “we had funding and did experiment after experiment” on new ideas for collecting and processing data. But in advance of the 2020 count, “the testing of the ideas could not happen. I don’t think they had the money to do it,” he said.

Nancy Bates, a senior researcher for survey methodology at the bureau, also has expressed frustration with the slow pace of innovation.

In a videotaped lecture to survey experts at the conference Dillman convened, she complained that the bureau had turned away from plans to use email and text messages to collect data and boost participation.

Nancy Bates, a survey methodology researcher at the Census Bureau, has expressed frustration with the slow pace of innovation. CREDIT: Creative Commons
Nancy Bates, a survey methodology researcher at the Census Bureau, has expressed frustration with the slow pace of innovation. CREDIT: Creative Commons

“We are not using the multiple-contact strategies of email,” she said. “We could. We have a contact list. We’re not doing it. We could use text, right? But we’re not doing that either. And we’re also not reaching out to people by phone. They can call in, but we’re not calling them. We’re also not doingany incentives. We’re not customizing your landing pages. They look the same for everybody. And our materials look the same for everybody with the exception, again, of the different languages.”

“Unfortunately, for I suppose good reasons – at least the census managers would say – we are not doing this in the 2020 (census),” she went on. “This experiment is not happening.”

The Census Bureau formally agreed with the criticisms and recommendations in the GAO reports. And it insists the census will succeed.

Reist, the census spokesperson, said in his statement that the bureau “has been a leader in using, adapting and developing new technologies” and that the 2020 count “will be the most sophisticated and high tech yet.”

‘Spontaneous’ concerns about confidentiality

The tone was set in June 2015, when Trump announced he was running for president in the glittering lobby of the Trump Tower in Manhattan. “They’re bringing drugs,” he said of Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

The comments were met with outrage. But Trump refused to apologize, instead doubling down on anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric, first as a candidate and then as president.

By fall 2017, the Census Bureau realized that anti-immigrant sentiment would create problems for 2020, records show. The issue became apparent when bureau researchers paid Spanish-speaking residents to participate in a series of interviews and focus groups.

According to a September 2017 internal memo by the bureau’s Center for Survey Measurement, subjects who spoke English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Arabic all balked when asked to give the names of the people with whom they lived. The “researchers have noticed a recent increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality,” according to the memo. Some gave fake names and others cut off the interviews, apparently out of fear they might put family or friends – or themselves – at risk of deportation.

One woman wouldn’t name members of her household, citing what she called the “Muslim ban.” As another respondent put it, “the possibility that the Census could give my information to internal security and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”

Researchers said they had never before encountered this “spontaneous mention of concerns regarding negative attitudes toward immigrants,” according to the memo. Even people who had participated in past studies “seemed visibly nervous and reticent” about discussing anything touching on immigration status. The researchers called their experience “eye-opening.”

Then, in 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced a citizenship question would appear on the 2020 census form. He claimed the Justice Department needed citizenship data to more effectively protect minority voters under the Voting Rights Act. Trump was enthusiastic.

The move ratcheted up fears in immigrant communities. The lawsuits that followed unearthed evidence suggesting the real reason why the government wanted to use the census to identify noncitizens: The administration hoped to give Republicans an edge in the redistricting process that will follow the census.

A GOP strategist had concluded in 2015 that adding a citizenship question to the census would give Texas the information GOP officials would need to draw citizen-only voting districts. This “would be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic whites,” the strategist, Thomas Hofeller, wrote in a memo discovered by Hofeller’s daughter after his death and obtained by the watchdog group Common Cause.

Before his death, Hofeller had proposed using the Voting Rights Act as a pretext for seeking the data, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers told the Supreme Court last year.

As the case moved forward, some Japanese Americans who had been held in U.S. internment camps during World War II also urged the court to bar the citizenship question. They noted that the federal government had suspended confidentiality rules and used data from the 1940 census to track down Japanese Americans for imprisonment.

Japanese Americans stand in front of posters with internment orders during World War II. In the 1940s, confidentiality rules were suspended for census records, which facilitated the internment campaign. CREDIT: National Archives
Japanese Americans stand in front of posters with internment orders during World War II. In the 1940s, confidentiality rules were suspended for census records, which facilitated the internment campaign. CREDIT: National Archives

In June 2019, the Supreme Court decided not to allow the question on the census. In a stinging rebuke, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the administration’s stated rationale as “contrived.”

But in terms of its impact on the census, much of the damage already may have been done.

Hundreds of billions of dollars at stake

For state governments, the census comes down to fundamental issues of power and money. By law, the greater a state’s population, the bigger its delegation in Congress. And most federal money to states is allocated according to population numbers as well.

When it became apparent that the 2020 census was in trouble, California officials were alarmed. With some 39 million residents, California is the most populous state in the nation and one that is vulnerable to an undercount because of its large Latino population, estimated at 39%. The state received more than $115 billion in federal funding in 2016 tied to census population numbers.

Demographers said that even with an accurate census count, one of the state’s 53 seats in Congress is at risk. A “failed census” with a significant undercount might cost the Golden State a second seat, said Paul Mitchell, a California redistricting expert.

The Democrat-controlled state Legislature responded with an appropriation of $187.2 million to boost the California count. The money is paying for everything from billboards to infomercials and the sort of civic event that fell flat in Fresno in September.

“We are going to make sure that we run an unprecedented campaign to make sure we touch every corner of this state,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in June.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who heads census outreach, said he failed to understand why 24 states have refused to follow California’s lead. States that aren’t spending on census outreach are committing political “malpractice,” he said.

Like California, Texas’ population – the second largest in the country at about 29 million – is 39% Latino. That leaves Texas, too, facing the possibility of a major undercount, with all its political and financial implications.

The citizenship question “scared our community,” said Stephanie Swanson of the League of Women Voters of Texas, adding that Latinos are extraordinarily wary about participating in the census there.

Even a 1% undercount could cost the state $300 million in federal aid, said Luis Figueroa of the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities. That’s big money in a state with famously low taxes, he said.

Hoping to head off a possible undercount, Democrats in the Republican-controlled Legislature proposed spending $50 million – and then $5 million – on census outreach. But both bills died in committee without a hearing. Advocates were convinced the bills’ death was a political play, in line with the tough-on-immigrants stance Texas Republicans have adopted in recent years.

“Not funding census outreach also aligns with the framework of their anti-immigrant (stance) and a deep history of rolling back voting rights for blacks and Hispanics,” said Sam Robles, the Progress Texas advocacy director, who lobbied the Legislature on the issue.

Since 2012, the state GOP’s platform has declared that only U.S. citizens should be counted in the census. “A lot of us always thought that congressional representation should only be based on actual citizenship,” said Art Martinez de Vara, who sat on the party’s platform committee.

In 2017, the GOP-controlled Legislature enacted a “show me your papers” law allowing police to query people they detain about their immigration status. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott declared that refugees no longer will be allowed to settle in the state, blaming “an immigration system that Congress has failed to fix.”

It’s a big change from the tenure of George W. Bush, who promoted immigration reform during his tenure as governor from 1995 to 2000.

Meanwhile, Texas demographics have shifted dramatically. The state has grown by an estimated 4.5 million people since 2010, and about two-thirds of these new Texans are thought to be Latinos or African Americans – reliable Democratic voters.

An accurate census count could benefit Democrats, positioning the party to flip Texas from red to blue for the first time in decades, some voting rights advocates say. But they note that an undercount among Latinos could help Texas Republicans hold onto power.

Next year, the Legislature, which now is controlled by Republicans, will use the 2020 census data to draw new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. Multiple voting rights lawsuits have alleged that the party has engaged in aggressive gerrymandering to protect that majority – that is, drawing district lines to maximize the voting power of white Republicans, while minimizing the political power of communities of color by packing them into a few so-called “majority minority districts.”

In 2020, according to Swanson, the League of Women Voters official, an undercount of Latinos would benefit the GOP because “it’s easier for them to gerrymander the state if there’s less Democrats.”

By refusing to spend money on the census, “Republicans are really gripping the power that they have at the cost of an undercount,” said Robles, of Progress Texas.

Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey insisted that the party is not hoping for an undercount. He said that for Republicans, spending state funds on the census just isn’t good government. He said his party believes the census is the federal government’s job, and the state has no business being involved.

It is “counterproductive to spend taxpayer dollars and hope to get more in taxpayer dollars,” he said.

In October, Swanson appeared on a Houston television program on census issues. At one point, she said she couldn’t understand why lawmakers wouldn’t spend some state funds on census outreach, given all the possible benefits when it comes to federal funding and political power.

Another panelist, political scientist David Branham of the University of Houston-Downtown, retorted that the decision was quite easy to understand.

“You’re not really baffled that the state Legislature isn’t spending money to turn Texas blue, are you?” he said.

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

Reporter Will Carless contributed to this story. It was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Lance Williams can be reached at lwilliams@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter:@LanceWCIR



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