August 3, 2020; Politico

Voices from both the political and the nonprofit arenas are challenging the US Census Bureau’s recent decision to end its data gathering four weeks early. With almost 40 percent of the count yet to go, hurrying forward could produce an inaccurate count and harm vulnerable populations.

The stakes are high. Based on the results each decennial head count, the House of Representatives’ 435 seats are reapportioned and the political influence of every part of the country is in play. The distribution of almost $700 billion in annual federal funding is determined by the detailed information the Census provides. Governments at all levels, along with for-profit and nonprofit organizations, depend on census data to make decisions that touch the lives of every resident.

From the moment planning began for this year’s count, disputes over who should be counted and how the count itself should be conducted have been contested. It took a US Supreme Court decision to resolve a heated struggle over whether the census could ask about citizenship status. Congress and the president have struggled over the introduction of online data gathering to the process, the amount of funding needed, and the census’s preparation. And then COVID-19 struck, making an already difficult process even more challenging.

So, alarm bells went off when the Census Bureau earlier this week announced it “would end field data collection by September 30, 2020. Self-response options will also close on that date to permit the commencement of data processing.” This startling change came just weeks after a request that Congress approve delaying completion of the count until April 2021 due to the pandemic’s impact. The Census Bureau now says it can stop counting heads one month earlier and will not need more time to accurately count what it has collected. It plans to give its results to the current president before December 31, 2020, before whoever is elected in November takes office.

Concerns are now being raised from a wide spectrum of perspectives. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland and the House majority leader, calls the shortened schedule “another example of this administration’s blatant assault on our Constitution and our democracy” in comments reported by the New York Times. And, speaking for those who lives would be most harmed by a skewed and inaccurate count, earlier this week, more than 500 leaders of philanthropic organizations wrote in protest to Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross and the Census Bureau’s Director, Steven Dillingham.

We are leaders of nonpartisan philanthropic institutions from across the country, large and small, giving hundreds of millions of dollars each year to advance the common good and improve the quality of life in the United States. We have different funding approaches, are ideologically diverse, and do not always share the same priorities. But we have come together to support a fair and accurate 2020 Census, with a focus on historically undercounted communities, including people of color, low-income and immigrant families, and young children. We all oppose cutting short the 2020 Census in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Rushing the census,” they say, “would hurt a diverse range of rural and urban communities, leaving them underrepresented locally and in Congress and cutting their fair share of federal funding for Medicaid, economic development, child care, schools, road and public transit improvements, home heating assistance for senior citizens, and many more vital services.”

A press release from the Funders Census Initiative, written by its director, Jocelyn Bissonnette, was clear in its support of getting the count correct. “State and local funders have supported the 2020 census with a focus on historically undercounted communities, including people of color, low-income and immigrant families, and young children. Philanthropy has raised its voice at this critical moment because communities deserve to be fairly and accurately counted, resourced, and represented.”

This sudden decision to speed up the Census comes as the latest in a series of efforts by the president to alter the political balance of power in his party’s favor. It began with the attempt to include a citizenship question in this year’s count. After losing that battle, last month, he took another try by ordering the Census Bureau to prepare a separate count of noncitizens so that states could adjust Census numbers and apportion based only on citizens:

Although the Constitution requires the “persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed,” to be enumerated in the census, that requirement has never been understood to include in the apportionment base every individual physically present within a State’s boundaries at the time of the census.  Instead, the term “persons in each State” has been interpreted to mean that only the “inhabitants” of each State should be included.  Determining which persons should be considered “inhabitants” for the purpose of apportionment requires the exercise of judgment.

This stance is contrary to the opinions of most constitutional experts. In comments reported by Politico, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and its affiliated nonprofit, says Trump’s order clearly violates the US Constitution. “This latest scheme is nothing more than a partisan attempt at manipulating the census to benefit the president’s allies,” Holder asserts, and it “cannot stand.”

A count that actively or passively fails to reach every resident will lead to individuals, families, and whole communities being hurt. Gary D. Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation and chair of a national philanthropic collaborative to promote a fair and accurate census, spoke of the long-term impact danger of a failed census. “The bottom line,” says Bass, “is that shortening the census in the face of national public health and economic crises will result in inaccurate data, distorting the true picture of America for the next decade.”—Martin Levine