A year after the Supreme Court struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census form, the integrity of the 2020 census is once again under threat. And once again, the stakes are highest for communities of color. On Friday, Politico reported that President Donald Trump was planning to reup his push to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count. Such a move this late in the count would be unprecedented; it would also fundamentally alter apportionment and likely depress the response rates of immigrants who have not yet filled out their forms. This change would be consistent with the Trump administration’s long and unsuccessful bid to add a citizenship question as well as with recent apparent attempts to politicize census operations more broadly.
At the end of last month, the White House and the Commerce Department placed two new political appointees at the Census Bureau, renewing fears that the Trump administration was again seeking to interfere with the census, a sprawling operation whose results will shape the distribution of political power and federal funds for the next decade. One of the roles went to Adam Korzeniewski, a Marine Corps veteran who consulted for the unsuccessful congressional campaign of Joseph Saladino, a controversial YouTube prankster who once wore a swastika to a Trump rally and claimed in one of his videos that “the Black community is very violent towards Trump and his supporters.” The other position went to Nathaniel T. Cogley, a radio commentator and assistant professor at Tarleton State University in Texas, who will be the deputy director for policy—the highest post a political appointee has held at the bureau for decades (besides the director, who is also a political appointee).
Neither Cogley’s nor Korzeniewski’s job descriptions have been made public—the roles did not even exist prior to the announcement—and neither man has sustained experience with census operations. Adding political appointees in the middle of the count is virtually unprecedented, not to mention doing so right at the start of what is sure to be one of the most difficult in-person counting operations in the bureau’s history. The American Statistical Association decried the news as creating “the perception—if not reality—of improper political influence.” The inspector general has asked the bureau to provide additional information about the positions, and Democratic lawmakers recently accused the Trump administration of failing to explain why political appointees are “running what should be an ideologically neutral count of the people in our country.”
In addition to undermining the reputation of an agency that prides itself on nonpartisanship, political meddling poses a serious risk to the accuracy of the census. If the White House pressures the bureau to curtail efforts to reach nonresponsive households, as some career bureaucrats fear, it will be historically undercounted communities—people of color, the poor, the homeless—who will suffer most. This is especially so amid a pandemic that has already upended the bureau’s door-knocking operation, which is designed to count people who do not respond on their own.
As of mid-July, only 62.1 percent of households nationally had responded to the census. If the remainder are to be counted, Census Bureau employees will need to visit nonresponding households in person, a process that is starting now on a phased basis and will continue through the fall. This “non-response follow-up” is especially critical for counting historically undercounted groups, who tend to respond to the census on their own at lower rates than do the general population.
Already, the response rate in some predominantly Black communities is far lower than the national average. In Jefferson County, Mississippi, home to a population that is more than 80 percent Black, the self-response rate is just 42.2 percent; in Hancock County, Georgia, which has a population that is nearly three-quarters Black, the self-response rate is a staggeringly low 24.8 percent. Even with a full door-knocking operation, the 2010 Census had a net undercount of Black citizens and residents by 2.1 percent and Latinos by 1.5 percent, missing the equivalent of two congressional districts. (The net undercount measures the share of people missed less the share of people counted multiple times or otherwise erroneously.) Before the pandemic hit, the 2020 census was already at risk of an even worse net undercount given low levels of trust in government and the Trump administration’s botched attempt to add a citizenship question to the census form. If the Trump administration does decide to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count, that could skew the data even further.
The new political appointees could further undermine the census if they propose cutting back on the door-knocking operation, such as by limiting the number of times door knockers can try to contact unresponsive households. (Currently, door knockers can make up to six attempts to visit a home.) While working in a previous role as a senior adviser in the Commerce Department, Cogley reportedly questioned some of the bureau’s methodologies, including those used to reach historically hard-to-count communities. Any last-minute changes to census operations would be highly disruptive. Even before Cogley’s appointment, it was not clear whether the bureau would be able to conduct door-knocking safely, although all field workers will be required to wear masks (a policy announced only last week) and the bureau will also distribute hand sanitizer and gloves. The recent surge in COVID-19 caseloads across the country makes their job even more difficult.
The new appointees could also pressure the Census Bureau to cut costs by increasing the use of administrative records, rather than in-person visits, to count the population. Despite the concerns of some activists and experts, the Census Bureau was already planning to rely on such records—which include federal tax returns, Medicare enrollment information, and 2010 census data—to fill in data for households they fail to reach in person. Using administrative records for this purpose was already risky, given that such records typically underrepresent communities of color. Relying more heavily on these records would be a mistake.
Now is the time for the bureau to fortify its operations, not shortchange them. The bureau should make sure it has enough staff to count homeless people, for example, an effort that will not begin until late September, just a month before the census ends. The bureau should also continue to spend money on advertising and outreach, which has been the primary way of spreading awareness about the census, especially among undercounted populations who tend to be less familiar with the questionnaire.
After the counting period is over, the Census Bureau typically reviews the data for accuracy, to try to ensure that no one is missed or counted more than once. The pandemic makes this stage more important than ever, given the risk of double-counting people who have moved during the counting period—college students living away from home, in particular, who tend to be disproportionately higher-income and white.
An accurate count benefits everybody, but it is especially important for Black citizens and residents and other racial minorities. Since the very first census, in 1790, Black people have never been counted equally: the text of the Constitution mandated that enslaved persons count as merely three-fifths of a free person. Even now, people of color continue to be omitted from census data. The current census could yield a particularly severe undercount in light of COVID-19, which has sickened racial minorities at disproportionately high rates and reduced opportunities for in-person outreach.
As the nation grapples with the effects of systemic racism, the census may appear dry and technocratic compared to debates about police brutality or Confederate statues. But failing to fully count communities of color will have deep repercussions, depriving Black and Latino communities of their share of political representation and federal funding for the next 10 years.
Census data provides the basis for determining which states will gain and lose seats in the House of Representatives, and states rely on census data for redistricting and often to allocate seats in state legislatures. The federal government, meanwhile, uses census data to distribute more than $1 trillion per year in funding to programs that cover everything from education to roads to Medicare. Prince George’s County, Maryland, a majority Black county, estimates that an undercount would result in a loss of $18,250 per person over the course of a decade.
The census should be above politics, and its data above reproach. To ensure this remains the case, the bureau should make Cogley’s and Korzeniewski’s job descriptions public and disclose any operational changes it is seriously considering. Everyone has a right to be counted. Amid COVID-19 and a national reckoning over race, the stakes have rarely been higher.