The Worst Census

Sam Reeves, MVC Writer

The 2020 Census total came in to three hundred and thirty one million, four hundred and forty nine thousand, two hundred and eighty one. I have never counted that high before, so I cannot blame the Census Bureau for getting the numbers a bit jumbled up. A total 18 million Americans were miscounted, which is almost the population of New York State. Specifically, 3.3 out of every 100 Black people were not counted, 5 out of every 100 Latinos were not counted, and 5.64 out of every 100 American Indians were not counted. On the other end, 1.64 out of every 100 white people were counted twice, and 2.62 out of every 100 Asian Americans were counted twice. Also, younger people were undercounted, and older people were overcounted. 

In total numbers, 2020’s was the most ambitious and least accurate Census in U.S. history. The 2010 Census saw similar errors, populations that were miscounted in 2020 were similarly miscounted in 2010, only to a lesser degree. There are, of course, extenuating circumstances. Virus worries cast doubt on whether or not the Census could even be done, given the Census’ historical reliance on door-to-door canvassing techniques. The weather was particularly unfavorable, wildfires and hurricanes spiked in 2020, affecting precisely the areas that undercounted populations are more likely to reside in. 

Institutional turmoil added insult to injury. Steven Dillingham, the director of the Census Bureau who oversaw 2020’s count, resigned in early 2021 following accusations of slashing deadlines in order to rush unfinished data. Career Census Bureau officials complained of the Trump administration’s “unprecedented…degree of engagement in technical manners,” mainly pertaining to multiple short-notice deadline changes from Dillingham and others. Some statisticians went as far as claiming “sabotage.” 

In response to the Census miscounts, the President of the National Congress for American Indians, Fawn Sharp, said “Every undercounted household and individual in our communities means lost funding and resources that are desperately needed to address the significant disparities we face.” 

Impact points of the undercount are hard to gauge. While the Census’ constitutional purpose is only for congressional reapportionment, just about every institution above a certain size uses Census data for one purpose or another: a restaurant chain calculating where to open a new store, an energy company deciding where to put a new plant, a city directing project funding. In any of these hypothetical cases, being part of an undercounted population will lead to being underserved by the institutions relying on the Census. The residents of a majority-Latino neighborhood might not particularly care if McDonalds does not serve their locale due to census undercounts, but they will care when they have high school aged children who must drive a minimum of fifteen minutes from home to reach a suitable food service job. Runoff effects like these are difficult to predict and ubiquitous in their consequence. As a result, it is also difficult to find any legal accountability for those responsible, or justice for those victimized. 

Unfortunately, there is no real institutional means of correcting the Census. The Census Bureau does have the “Count Question Resolution Program,” which allows localities to challenge their Census results. A successful challenge results in the Census Bureau recounting an area, which leaves it prone to the same miscounts that happened the first time. Also, miscounts of large portions of the population, this time at the scale of 18 million, are not corrected at the miniature scale that the Count Question Resolution Program operates within–the entirety of 2010’s Census saw mere hundreds of uncounted people being added.