By Hansi Lo Wang, NPR
The 2020 census continued a longstanding trend of undercounting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, while overcounting people who identified as white and not Latino, according to estimates from a report the U.S. Census Bureau released.
Latinos — with a net undercount rate of 4.99% — were left out of the 2020 census at more than three times the rate of a decade earlier.
Among Native Americans living on reservations (5.64%) and Black people (3.30%), the net undercount rates were numerically higher but not statistically different from the 2010 rates.
People who identified as white and not Latino were overcounted at a net rate of 1.64%, almost double the rate in 2010. Asian Americans were also overcounted (2.62%). The bureau said based on its estimates, it’s unclear how well the 2020 tally counted Pacific Islanders.
The long-awaited findings came from a follow-up survey the bureau conducted to measure the accuracy of the latest head count of people living in the U.S., which is used to redistribute political representation and federal funding across the country for the next 10 years.
Other estimates the bureau released on Thursday revealed that the most recent census followed another long-running trend of undercounting young children under age 5.
COVID and Trump administration meddling hurt the count’s accuracy
While the bureau’s stated goal is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” miscounts have come with every census. Some people are counted more than once at different addresses, driving overcounts, while U.S. residents missing from the census fuel undercounting.
Disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and interference by former President Donald Trump’s administration raised alarms about the increased risk of the once-a-decade tally missing swaths of the country’s population. COVID-19 also caused multiple delays to the bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey that’s used to determine how accurate the census results are and inform planning for the next national count in 2030.
During the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos — who, before becoming the agency’s head, told Bloomberg CityLab that he believed the census was “being sabotaged” during the Trump administration to produce results that benefit Republicans — acknowledged “an unprecedented set of challenges” facing the bureau over the last couple of years.
“Many of you, including myself, voiced concerns. How could anyone not be concerned? These findings will put some of those concerns to rest and leave others for further exploration,” Santos, a Biden administration appointee, said during the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results.
The bureau said previously that it believes the census results are “fit to use” for reallocating each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as redrawing voting districts.
Census numbers are also used to guide the distribution of an estimated $1.5 trillion each year in federal money to communities for health care, education, transportation and other public services. Some tribal, state and local officials are considering ways of challenging the results for potential corrections that would be factored into future funding decisions.
The report the bureau released on Thursday only provided a national-level look at the count’s accuracy, and the agency says it’s planning to release state-level metrics this summer.
“There are a lot more states for us to check and review and look through,” said Timothy Kennel, assistant division chief for statistical methods, during a webinar before Thursday’s release.
Civil rights groups are looking for remedies
Still, these national-level metrics resurfaced concerns among civil rights organizations and other census watchers who have warned for years about the risk of racial gaps in the census numbers leading to inequitable allocations of political power and federal money.
In response to the bureau reporting that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations continued to have the highest net undercount rate among racial and ethnic groups, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the results “confirm our worst fears.”
“Every undercounted household and individual in our communities means lost funding and resources that are desperately needed to address the significant disparities we face,” added Sharp, who is also the vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash., in a statement.
Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, which led a federal lawsuit in 2020 to try to stop Trump officials from cutting counting efforts short, said the group’s lawyers are considering returning to court to try to secure a remedy.
“We’ve talked about voter suppression. Now we see population suppression,” Morial said on a call with reporters. “And when you tie them together, it is the poisonous tree of seeking to diminish the distribution of power in this nation on a fair and equitable basis.”
Other longtime census watchers see this moment as a chance to reimagine what the next count in 2030 could look like.
Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, said the next census should be taken in a “much more modern and effective way” to address the persistent undercounting of Latinos and other people of color.
“This whole notion of coming up with a master address file and mailing everybody an invitation to participate and hoping that they respond, and if they don’t, you go knock on their doors, that’s an obsolete way now of counting the U.S. population. We need a better way. I don’t have the answer to what that better way is, but I want to work with the Census Bureau to figure it out,” Vargas added.
In addition to looking ahead to the next decade, Vargas noted a more immediate concern: how to improve the annual population estimates that the bureau produces using 2020 census data and that states and local communities rely on to get their shares of federal funding.
Asked by NPR if there are any plans to factor the new over and undercounting rates into those estimates, Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, replied the agency is “taking steps in that direction.”
“But we have to do research so that we can understand whether or not we can do that,” Battle said.