The Census Crisis: Commerce Secretary Tightens Grip on a Vital Public Good

October 2, 2020 | 3:12 pm
US Census Bureau
Taryn MacKinney
Former Contributor

In defiance of a federal judge’s order to continue the 2020 census count through October 31 after the administration cut it short, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced a new deadline—October 5, nearly a month sooner than the judge required.

In the closing acts of the nation’s most vital research effort, how did we reach this crisis point?

What’s the deal with the census?

Nearly 330 million people call the United States home, and this year, the government is tasked with counting all of them. The census only happens once a decade but requires years of planning, hundreds of thousands of census takers, and months of data collection and analysis.

This work is indispensable to our democracy for several reasons. First, the census determines political representation. The more people in a state, the more delegates that state sends to the House of Representatives. States also use census data to redraw the boundaries of voting districts, or redistrict. Second, the census helps the government allocate money fairly to states and communities. Data from the census will determine how $1.5 trillion is distributed each year across federal programs like low-income housing tax credits, school lunch programs, and rural health initiatives. Third, the census guides science and business alike. These data underpin research in health, economics, and social science, and census-derived data, like labor statistics, inform business decisions.

In other words, the census is a big deal—and this year, it faces a crisis.

The 2020 census faces a pandemic and political interference

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on census operations. The novel coronavirus reached US shores in January; by mid-March, the Census Bureau had halted field operations to keep its workers and the public safe. In mid-April, as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed and states shut down, the Bureau urged Congress to allow “120 additional calendar days” to complete the census. The extension would bump the final deadline for the census from December to April. Bureau leaders were reassured that Congress and the Department of Commerce (DOC), the hulking parent agency that oversees the Census Bureau, would back the extension. The president expressed support during a press briefing.

But this plan screeched to a halt on July 29. According to a report by the DOC’s watchdog office, a senior DOC official approached Bureau staff with an alarming request: Make a plan to meet the original December deadline. The Bureau had five days to draft this proposal—five days to figure out how to shave four months off the census. Census staff realized they would have to shorten counting efforts by a month. “It’s going to be impossible to complete the count in time,” an employee told a reporter. A leaked Bureau analysis laid bare this fear: the shortened schedule, it warned, could increase the risk of serious errors that “may not be fixed.” It could also “reduce [the] accuracy” of the census and prompt “vocal objections” from states.

But staff had no choice. On August 3, the Bureau announced that counting would end on September 30 instead of October 31, and the October deadline quietly disappeared from the Bureau’s website.

The court defends the census, but the Commerce Department flouts the ruling

The truncated timeline did not go unnoticed. Two weeks later, an enormous coalition—including the National Urban League, League of Women Voters, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and cities and counties across three states—filed suit against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham. “This lawsuit,” the complaint read, “challenges the unconstitutional and illegal decision [by Ross and Dillingham] to sacrifice the accuracy of the 2020 Census by forcing the Census Bureau to compress eight and a half months of vital data-collection and data-processing into four and a half months […].”

On September 24, a federal judge agreed. Six days before the count was set to end, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled that the shortened deadline would “single-mindedly [sacrifice] a complete and accurate census.” She ordered the count to continue through the end of October.

But only a few days later, the Commerce Secretary announced that the census count would end on October 5—nearly a month earlier than the judge’s order required. Judge Koh warned that she was prepared to hold the Commerce Department in contempt.

Meanwhile, alarming stories rolled in. Census takers, or enumerators, in Texas and Washington were instructed to finish the count by September 30, and Maryland enumerators said they were told to do “whatever [they] have to do” to wrap up the count, even checking mail or asking neighbors. “This goes against what my Enumerator training advised,” one enumerator said. “I was told to never look in mailboxes, peek in windows, or make any assumptions.” In California, as enumerators were being told to turn in census equipment, one wrote to the court with a desperate plea: “Please do something to help us!” Koh will hold a hearing today.

Enumerators are trapped in limbo: they’ve been told to continue operations, but also to wrap them up. The Commerce Secretary gave them four days to complete the count, but the federal court gave them a month. The case could soon reach the Supreme Court, which, in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, has eight justices instead of nine.

The census faces a crisis

The insanity of this moment should appall us. As with the nation and the world, the Census Bureau is being pounded by converging crises—an economic collapse, a staggering wave of natural disasters, and the deadliest pandemic in a century. It is not enough for administration officials to shrug and wonder aloud why the Census Bureau needs more time.

Census data ensure that communities get funding to build roads and hospitals, and they help businesses decide where to expand. They are crucial for schools to educate and feed children, and they help researchers conduct lifesaving research. Worse, low-income individualspeople of colorundocumented immigrantsIndigenous people, and children (especially Black and Latino children) are among the least likely to be counted accurately, an inequity that could be exacerbated by the pandemic. The Bureau’s tightened schedule means less time for census workers to go door-to-door to reach hard-to-count households. If these households are missing from census data, their communities could lose funding for critical public services, like health care and school nutrition programs. They could even lose or be denied fair representation in government.

In a year of calamity and heartbreak, it is more important than ever that our government upholds its constitutional duty to “[count] the whole number of persons” in this country. After all, the census reaches every corner of life in the United States. It is fundamental to a just and equitable society. All of us should count.