This is serious business. Return your Census.” Credit: ChuckCars

August 4, 2020; New York Times

Science-free policymaking? Meet your cousin, math-free policymaking.

Yes, on Monday, as Michael Wines reports in the New York Times, the US Census Bureau indicated it plans to finish its count four weeks ahead of schedule, a decision that’s either a sign of remarkable efficiency amid the pandemic, or, far more likely, a failure to do the work needed to get an accurate decennial count.

Census experts, writes Wines, expect the move to “deeply imperil an accurate tally of the population.” And, of course, errors are not randomly distributed; rather, the gaps are expected to “wreak havoc with efforts to reach the very hardest-to-count households”—namely, immigrants, Black people, indigenous people, and youth.

In response to the Bureau’s action, four former directors issued a statement warning that a shorter deadline “will result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country,” and urged the administration to restore the lost weeks.

“The end result,” they add, “will be an under-representation of those persons that [non-response follow-up] was expected to reach and, at even greater rates for traditionally hard-to-count populations and over-representations of all other populations with possibly extreme differential undercounts.”

The four directors, who served a total of nine Democratic and Republican presidents, also urged Congress to have a trusted body of experts develop metrics to assess count quality and called on the census bureau “to make transparency and openness a priority” to ensure outsiders that the count is being fairly and honestly conducted.

The action has already caused consternation on Capitol Hill. Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Oversight committee that oversees the census, alleges that new schedule will “rush and politicize the 2020 Census” in a letter sent to Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau director.

Maloney noted that Dillingham did not mention the schedule change in testimony to the committee last week.

Wines notes that earlier, “Slammed by the pandemic, the Census Bureau had said earlier that it wanted to delay its final delivery of population totals to the White House until April 2021, rather than the statutory deadline of December 31. The speedup announced late Monday effectively rescinds that request and assumes that the totals will be delivered by year’s end—before any new president or Congress might take office.”

To date, the Census Bureau says it has reached roughly 63 percent of the nation’s households, all of whom completed the 2020 survey online, by mail, or by telephone. But that leaves 60 million households that have failed to fill out census forms. Typically, this process would be completed by the end of August. In mid-April, however, the Census Bureau indicated that pandemic delays required extending the deadline to October 31st.

The latest schedule change will move that deadline up by one month, to September 30. As Wines explains, “The effect is to shorten to six weeks what had been a 10-week period reserved for completing the count.”

The Census Bureau says it will mount “a robust field data collection operation” to meet the new deadline. But the past census directors warn that a shortened count would inevitably fail to reach many of the hard-to-count households in both urban and rural areas, resulting in a need to rely heavily on statistical estimates, leading to inevitable errors.

“Serious inaccuracies,” notes Wines, “would not only affect numbers used to reapportion and redraw political districts, but also would skew the baseline that will be used to allot trillions of dollars in federal grants and other aid to the states until the next census in 2030.”—Steve Dubb