WASHINGTON (News Nation) — The U.S. Census Bureau is cutting its schedule for data collection for the 2020 census a month short as legislation that would have extended the national head count’s deadlines stalls in Congress.
It’s a decision that is worrying some researchers over data accuracy and lawmakers from districts with hard-to-count communities, including minorities and immigrants.
The Census Bureau said late Monday that the door-knocking and ability for households to respond either online, by phone or by mail to the questionnaire will stop at the end of September instead of the end of October so that it can meet an end-of-the-year statutory deadline to turn in numbers used for districting and elections.
The count determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed and how many congressional districts each state gets. The counts thoroughness will have lasting effects through the next decade.
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., represents a district near Los Angeles with a large immigrant population, whose members take more time to reach because they are hesitant about the census.
“It definitely undermines it. It makes it a more difficult to have enough time to count everybody,” said Gomez, “Cutting it short is going to make our jobs more difficult.”
According to guidance from the bureau, hard-to-count (HTC) individuals in data collection are “those for whom a real or perceived barrier exists to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process.” They can be hard to locate, contact, persuade and/or interview.
Immigrants are considered a HTC population with possible barriers such as language, fear of legal aspects of participating in the count and unfamiliarity with census benefits.
Populations living in remote and rural areas can also pose a challenge. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, is concerned a rushed census count may result in rural districts being under counted.
“We should be taking as much time as possible, in order to fill this out,” said Hurd, “We shouldn’t be premature in stopping this. We should be sure we get a complete and accurate count.”
In a letter Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, addressed to Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, she echoed some lawmakers concerns, “This move will rush the enumeration process, result in inadequate follow-up, and undercount immigrant communities and communities of color who are historically undercounted.”
The Census Bureau did not respond to an interview request by News Nation.
However, in a statement, Dillingham said the agency aimed to have the same level of responses as past censuses. “We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” he said. In addition, the bureau plans “the hiring of more employees to accelerate the completion of data collection” and “to increase our staff to ensure operations are running at full capacity” for processing the data.
If communities are missed, it will have “a large downstream impact” not only on apportionment but social science research and other Census Bureau surveys that rely on the once-a-decade census, said David Van Riper, director of spatial analysis at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation.
“It’s interesting that this is happening now because all of the COVID databases are using population data from the census,” Van Riper said. Data used from an inaccurate count during a pandemic like the one the U.S. is experiencing “would give us a false perception of what’s going on on the ground,” he added.
As of Monday, 37% of U.S. households hadn’t yet responded to the census questionnaire. Some of the 500,000 door knockers hired by the Census Bureau have begun visiting those households, but they weren’t expected to go out in force until next week.
An analysis by the CUNY Center for Urban Research shows that 10 states currently are trailing their 2010 self-response rates by 5 to 10 percentage points, meaning they will require a greater share of door-knocking than they did a decade ago. Those states are Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.
Four former Census Bureau directors who have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations warned in a letter that cutting short the door-knocking phase would force the bureau to rely on administrative records and statistical techniques to fill gaps on a much larger scale than in previous censuses.
Congress should task an independent institution to measure whether the 2020 count matches the outcomes of previous censuses, and if not, recommend what steps should be taken, said the letter signed by Vincent Barabba, Robert Groves, Kenneth Prewitt and John Thompson.
“A big deal would be if there are serious undercounts,” said former Census director John Thompson, “They’re going to be with us for ten years.”
Facing delays caused by the pandemic, the Census Bureau had earlier this year requested three additional months to knock on doors because of COVID-19, hoping to wrap up field operations for the once-a-decade head count at the end of October instead of July.
The bureau also asked Congress in April to extend the deadline for turning in apportionment data used for drawing congressional districts from Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021.
The request to Congress also asked that the deadline for turning in data used for drawing legislative and local districts be extended from March 30, 2021, to July 31, 2021, but the Census Bureau is now aiming to finish those responsibilities by the end of March.
Maloney on Tuesday introduced an update to the legislation pending in Congress that would give the Census Bureau more time by pushing back the deadlines to the later dates.
Reporting by Mike Schneider for The Associated Press.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.