Census results influence how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is spent every year and determine how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives and are used to draw congressional and state legislative districts.
The U.S. Census Bureau on Monday announced it would cut its once-a-decade count of every American who lives in the United States short by one month. Civil rights advocates and Democrats are worried that the decision could lead to an undercount, depriving communities of federal funding.
The agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, previously extended its reporting deadline from July 31 to Oct. 31, to account for the coronavirus pandemic, but the Bureau will now suspend online and telephone reporting and door-knocking activities on Sept. 30.
The consequences of stopping the data collection early could be devastating, particularly for low-income people, people of color, and immigrants, who are historically undercounted to begin with. Census results determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is spent every year and how much goes to state and local governments to operate programs like Medicaid, free school meals, unemployment insurance, and food assistance. These programs, which are a lifeline for many Americans under normal circumstances, could be all the more critical during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
The census also plays a huge role in political representation. Census results determine how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives and are used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which can determine which laws are passed on the state or federal level. By ending the count early, states with high immigrant populations and large communities of color such as California, New York, and Texas stand to lose funding and seats in the House, while heavily white states like Alabama and Ohio would gain a seat.
RELATED: Why the Census Really Matters
This, civil rights groups, census workers, and Democrats say, is the whole point: The Trump administration is working to disempower diverse cities and states that lean Democratic while helping those that are whiter and more likely to vote Republican.
“This is nothing but a disgusting power grab from an Administration hell-bent on preserving its fleeting political power at all costs,” New York state’s census director, Julie Menin, said in a statement on Monday. “From day one, it has been abundantly clear that Donald Trump is going to try everything possible to stop New Yorkers from filling out the census, and now, amid a global pandemic that’s severely impacted outreach, they are straight-up trying to steal it.”
Monday’s announcement comes just weeks after Trump signed a presidential memorandum ordering the Bureau to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted in congressional districts when district lines are redrawn next year, in conjunction with the Census count. Legal experts and Democrats have said the effort is unconstitutional and it has already been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil rights organizations.
“The constitutional mandate is clear—every person counts in the census. Undocumented immigrants are people—and nothing President Trump does or says changes that fact,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.
The memorandum, critics and advocates say, represents just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to disempower immigrants and communities of color. The administration previously tried and failed to add a citizenship question on the census, which the ACLU said was an attempt to intimidate immigrant communities and prevent them from participating.
“Trump tried once to weaponize the census against immigrant communities, and failed. He will fail again,” Ho said.
Rebecca DeHart, CEO of Fair Count, a Georgia-based nonprofit working to achieve an accurate count in the state, made a similar argument earlier this year. “There are definitely forces at play that don’t want certain communities to be counted,” DeHart told COURIER. “They don’t want the resources to go to those communities, they don’t want the political power to be shared within those communities.”
Even if Trump’s memorandum is overturned in the end, its impact is already being felt. In a statement Monday, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham said the agency was continuing “its work on meeting the requirements” set forth by Trump’s order and would submit congressional apportionment data by Dec. 31, as requested by the Trump administration.
The law mandates a December 31 deadline as well, but the Bureau also initially asked Congress to allow it to extend that deadline to April 2021 due to the pandemic. The Democratic-controlled House in May voted to extend the deadline, but the Senate has yet to act. Appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week, Dillingham refused to say whether the agency stood by its original request for an extension.
About 63% of all households have completed the census thus far, according to Dillingham’s statement. But that means nearly one in four have not, and now have less than two months to do so.
Ten states currently trail their 2010 self-response rates by 5 to 10 percentage points, according to a new analysis from the CUNY Center for Urban Research. This means they will require more door-knocking than they did a decade ago, even as the Bureau is cutting its program short. Those states are Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming.
If you have yet to respond to the Census, you can do so here.