Supreme court gets census question right


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This week, the Supreme Court issued a decision blocking the Trump administration’s controversial move to add an untested and unprecedented citizenship question to the 2020 census. The court rightly rejected the administration’s preposterous assertion that the question will help the federal government enforce the Voting Rights Act, a law designed to protect and enhance the rights of minority voters. The Justices called that claim a “distraction,” and for good reason. Experts predicted the citizenship question would cause almost 9 million people not to fill out their census forms, making it exponentially more likely that they would not be counted in the 2020 census.

People from minority communities would have been hit the hardest, particularly in states with large immigrant populations like New York, which led the court fight against adding the question.

Last week’s decision removes that threat, but others still loom. It’s time for us to hold the administration accountable for putting the census back on track and repairing the damage it caused by supporting the citizenship question. The administration may be willing to sacrifice the census for naked political gain, but every person in the country should care about getting the 2020 census right.

An Accurate Count Matters

There are many reasons to care. For one, census numbers determine how the federal government allocates around $900 billion every year for necessities like schools, health care, food, and roads. Businesses also rely on census data to ensure their economic viability. And states and local governments use census numbers to plan for things like natural disasters and public health emergencies. An inaccurate count can mean crumbling infrastructure, hits to the economy, and children going to bed hungry. Because the census only happens once a decade, if we don’t get the 2020 census right, we’ll be stuck with those dire consequences for at least the next ten years.

What must be done now to ensure the 2020 census goes smoothly? For one, the administration needs to focus on minimizing the potential for a differential undercount. A differential undercount is the disproportionate undercounting of one subgroup of the population compared to others. The citizenship question, for example, was estimated to lead to at least a 2% differential undercount of the Hispanic population.

To reduce the risk of an undercount, the administration must strive to reduce the fears that the citizenship question exacerbated. It should double down on its commitment to following the laws that protect the confidentiality of census responses. It should engage in efforts to inform the public that it will not use census data to harm census respondents — including for any immigration or other law-enforcement purpose — and that, even if it wanted to, the law clearly prohibits it.

To underscore that promise, the Census Bureau should provide the public with an easy-to-understand guide to its internal procedures for deterring, identifying, and responding to confidentiality breaches. And the Bureau should enact a zero-tolerance policy that mandates referring anyone who violates confidentiality laws for criminal prosecution.

What Needs to Be Done

The 2020 census is the first that will give respondents the option of providing their census responses online. This means the administration must take steps to combat the digital divide between those with reliable access to the internet, and those with little-to-none. Outreach to communities that lack internet access will be of paramount importance.

The administration should also push for adequate funding to ensure that the Census Bureau will be able to hire the employees it will need to go door-to-door to count people living in households that do not initially respond to the census online or through the mail. The decreased response rate now expected due to fears of the federal government means that the Bureau will need more employees to complete that colossal endeavor. Since the Bureau is currently not on track to hire enough workers, the administration needs to amplify its hiring efforts immediately.

Ensuring that the census looks out for our marginalized communities by counting everyone is not just a moral imperative — it will benefit us all.

Kelly Percival is Counsel with the Democracy Program and census expert at The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.





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