A year before the 2020 census, experts share four key insights

Experts share insights on the Census 2020

Less than a year remains before the United States undertakes a decennial census for the 24th time in its history. On April 1, 2019, national experts gathered at Brookings for a joint event with the National League of Cities (NLC) Institute to discuss what the 2020 census means not only for the nation as a whole, but also for the major cities and metropolitan areas on the front lines of America’s demographic change. Presenters and panelists highlighted four key takeaways for people and organizations committed to ensuring a full, fair, and accurate count of the U.S. population as preparations continue to ramp up for next year.

There’s a lot at stake in the 2020 census. The panelists noted that the decennial census provides the statistical basis for the distribution of hundreds of federal financial assistance programs. According to forthcoming research from Andrew Reamer at George Washington University, the federal government provided an estimated $883 billion in funding from 55 large expenditure programs to states in fiscal year 2016 that was based on data derived from the 2010 census.

Beyond (or perhaps behind) the fiscal implications of the census lies its role in the successful execution of American democracy. State legislatures use population data from the decennial census to draw federal and state legislative districts, while the federal government uses them to enforce voting rights laws. Notwithstanding the prevalence of partisan gerrymandering in district design, and ongoing legal and political obstacles for minorities at the ballot box, Brookings trustee Cheryl Cohen Effron reminded the audience that the census remains “…a federally mandated chance to create real equity, to make sure everyone counts by making sure we count everyone.”

This census has gotten political. Despite the fact that an arm of the federal executive branch (the Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau) carries out it out, the decennial census retains a reputation for nonpartisanship, and Republican and Democratic administrations have executed the survey with equal success. The panelists discussed how the Trump administration, however, has greatly ramped up the partisan political character of the census, most notably through its contested actions to add a question on citizenship to the survey. The morning of the event, the president himself tweeted that the 2020 census would be “meaningless” without the “all important Citizenship Question.” 

The presence of a citizenship question will lower response rates and decrease the accuracy of the census.

Panelists at the event took issue with the president’s characterization and the trend toward politicization of the census. Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson highlighted the Bureau’s own research indicating that the presence of a citizenship question will lower response rates and decrease the accuracy of the census. And Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights and former head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, disputed the administration’s proffered rationale that the question is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act. She remarked that the president’s tweet “…is deeply unhelpful for those of us around the country who are working to ensure that the hardest-to-count communities have faith to make themselves counted in this endeavor.” 

Kids are a special concern. Due to factors like housing instability and lack of information, economically and socially vulnerable populations are less likely than others to be counted in the census. As Brookings scholar Bill Frey noted, this is a special concern for people under age five, about 5 percent of whom were uncounted in the 2010 census. Frey went on to highlight that in 2020, the young child population will be majority-nonwhite, with Hispanics accounting for more than one in four members. A potential child undercount may be further exacerbated in 2020 by the looming citizenship question, because noncitizen households are more likely to contain children, and because many of these households will be new to the census. Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts Campaign, noted that many of these households do not, for one reason or another, indicate the presence of young children in their survey responses. Failing to fully count a new, diverse generation of kids could have serious downstream implications for resourcing schools and other critical local services for populations who may need them most.

Cities and states are getting engaged. The percentage of people who indicated recently that they are likely to respond to the 2020 census was 65 percent, down from 87 percent in advance of the 2010 census, according to Gary Bass, Executive Director of the Bauman Foundation. Ensuring full participation in the census will require overcoming a climate of distrust and fear associated with the federal government. As such, city and state leaders, particularly those outside the public sector, will be critical partners in that effort.

City and state leaders will be critical partners in overcoming a climate of distrust and fear associated with the federal government around the 2020 census.

Fortunately, panelists Lynk and Bass and moderator/NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony pointed to several examples of smart leadership outside Washington. California has put significant resources into a regionally-focused, nonprofit-led, get-out-the-count effort. More cities, such as San Antonio and surrounding Bexar County, are establishing volunteer Complete Count Committees to increase local awareness and motivate residents to respond to the 2020 census. More than 100 philanthropies are engaged in supporting census outreach at all levels. Cheryl Effron noted that much of the energy in New York City around census outreach has come from outside government, with business and civic leaders coordinating with libraries, the YMCA, and smaller community-based organizations in order to effectively engage the city itself. NLC’s action guide for the 2020 census lays out strategic steps for city leaders to maximize resident participation.

Between decisions at the national level (especially a forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the citizenship question) and efforts at the local level (to identify, reach, and assist hard-to-count populations in participation), the next year will greatly shape the success of the 2020 census and its impacts for decades to come.