A pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and the toxic politics of a presidential election year, have disrupted the taking of the 2020 Census. That’s worrisome for anybody whose life is touched in some way by federal spending — meaning, pretty much everybody. The census is not a quaint tradition or historical artifact; it’s a research project to gather, analyze, and certify data that the federal government will utilize for a decade — including for apportionment of Congressional seats. The pandemic’s effects could linger for some time, so information from the 2020 Census will be essential in helping the country get back to something that resembles normal.
Federal support for education, health care, infrastructure, and dozens of other programs is allocated to states based on census data. According to an analysis by the GW Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University, the 2010 census yielded $39.1 billion for the Keystone State and $27.2 billion for the Garden State in 2016 alone. To ensure equity, as well as the wisest use of federal resources, the count —required by the 14th Amendment to include “all persons” residing in each state — needs to be as accurate and complete as possible.
The economic and political implications of undercounting communities of all kinds will last for a decade or more. Census numbers are used in calculating state and local shares of $1.5 trillion annually in federal support for homeland security, job training, nutritional assistance, and veterans assistance programs.
Unfortunately, much as President Trump has done to the US Postal Service, and to voting by mail, he has launched politically motivated attacks on the census. That includes not giving the bureau the extra time it says it needs. Congress must act now to extend the deadlines for completing census field operations from Sept. 30 to Oct. 31, and for final data reporting from Dec. 31 to April 21, 2021.
Doing so would ease the administration’s tighter-than-usual deadlines. But the extensions also would help ensure better counts in rural areas of Pennsylvania as well as red states that traditionally vote Republican. Adding four weeks to field operations that have been impeded by COVID-19 restrictions would give rural, as well as urban and suburban, communities of color a better chance to be thoroughly counted.
According to Pa. Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat, the city’s “abysmal” response rate of 55% could jeopardize future federal assistance equivalent to $2,000 in spending annually for every resident. For the poorest of America’s largest cities, with fully one-quarter of all residents living below the federal poverty line, such a shortfall would be painful indeed.
In a year of painful reckonings with the stain of racism and its enduring effects, particularly on Black people, a census process that has historically undercounted communities of color ought to be expanding, not limiting, efforts to account for everyone. Political leader and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams recently launched an effort focused on the census (www.faircount.org). Residents of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states need to contact their Congressional representatives and persuade them to support the deadline extensions — so the Census Bureau can get the job done right.