While the census generally overcounts whites and undercounts minorities, the discrepancies were higher in 2020 than in 2010, according to the bureau’s post-enumeration survey, a resurvey of randomly selected geographic areas the bureau conducts after each decennial census. Most significantly, the undercount for Hispanics more than tripled, from 1.54 percent to 4.99 percent, and the undercount for those who identify as “some other race” shot up from 1.63 percent to 4.34 percent. The undercounts for Blacks and American Indians/Alaska Natives were also higher than in 2010 but not at a statistically significant rate, the bureau said.

The inaccuracies also swung the other way, with whites overcounted in 2020 by 1.64 percent, double the 2010 rate. Asians, who were not over- or undercounted in 2010, were overcounted this time by 2.62 percent. Both are statistically significant changes, according to the bureau. Thursday’s release also included additional demographic analysis estimates that compare population data unrelated to the census with what the census enumerated.

In a presentation of the new data, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos called the 2020 count “robust and consistent with recent censuses,” adding that it was “fit for many uses and decision-making” and provides “a vivid portrait of our nation’s population.”

The 2020 count was beset by unprecedented challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires and the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question, stop undocumented immigrants from being counted for apportionment and end the count earlier than the bureau had planned. Immigrant advocates and census experts had long warned that such actions would intimidate Hispanics and could reduce participation. Independent analyses of the 2020 count had also indicated likely undercounts among minorities.

Native Americans Census

A sign promoting Native American participation in the U.S. Census is displayed on Aug. 26, 2020, as Selena Rides Horse enters information into her phone on behalf of a member of the Crow Indian Tribe in Lodge Grass, Mont. Matthew Brown/Associated Press, file

Arturo Vargas, chief executive of the NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, called the results “a major step backward,” unprecedented since the country began enumerating Hispanics as a specific group in 1980, and questioned whether the data was “fit for use.” Census data is used to apportion a decade’s worth of House seats and for redistricting, both of which are already underway, along with $1.5 trillion in annual funding.

“I lay this at the feet of Donald Trump and (former commerce secretary) Wilbur Ross and their efforts to disrupt the census and make it as difficult as possible for Latinos to participate,” he said, adding that census results released last year included suspiciously low population numbers in heavily Hispanic areas. “I said from the beginning when the first numbers were released that I smelled smoke, and today we learned that the 2020 Census was a five-alarm fire.”

Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, which in 2020 sued the government to extend the count, called the new results “a tragedy.”

“These numbers are devastating,” he said. “The warnings we gave, the concerns that we raised, were absolutely true, and today we find ourselves with a census that is neither complete nor accurate.”

Citing “malfeasance and incompetence by the leadership of the Census Bureau under the Trump administration,” Morial called on the government to rectify the problem, adding, “Any options we have, including litigation, will be on the table.”

Along with minorities, the census also tends to undercount renters and young people, and this was reflected in the new data. The net undercount of children age 0 to 4 in 2020 was 5.4 percent based on demographic analysis estimates, the highest rate recorded since tracking begin in the 1950 Census, according to a report Thursday by William O’Hare, president of O’Hare Data and Demographic Services. “Communities that are under counted do not get their fair share of these resources for things like schools, health clinics, playgrounds, and childcare centers,” the report said.

Several analysts called on the government to “rethink the model” of how the census is conducted, and some suggested it consider adjusting the 2020 numbers.

“Unfortunately, the 2020 count did not result in a fairer outcome than the past few decades,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “I think that means the Census Bureau needs to explore new methods for improving the accuracy of the count in all areas. And Congress needs to put partisan politics aside and give the bureau flexibility to consider all options that meet rigorous scientific standards, including the possibility of a statistical adjustment.”

Adjusting the raw census numbers based on the results of the post-enumeration survey would be unprecedented, Lowenthal noted, adding that in 1990, the census director recommended such an adjustment but was overruled by the commerce secretary. The Census Act prohibits using adjusted counts to apportion House seats; Congress would need to amend the law to do so. Individual jurisdictions may challenge their local census results without congressional action.

Kenneth Johnson, a professor of sociology and senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire, said while he was relieved the overall results were relatively accurate, the substantial Hispanic undercount “is troubling since the Hispanic population is the largest minority population numerically, has been among the fastest-growing parts of the population over the past three decades and is spreading” in rural and urban areas. “One wonders,” he said, “about what the implications of this undercount of Hispanics are for their representation in both the federal and state legislatures.”

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called for the Census Bureau to start focusing immediately on rehabilitating its image, especially among Hispanics. “The 2020 Census was more politicized than any census in our history, and there are long-term reputational harms for that that have to be addressed now rather than waiting 10 years,” he said. “It’s not the Census Bureau’s fault, but the Census Bureau needs to fix it.”

Saenz suggested investing now in public relations campaigns, being more direct when informing the public about laws that protect respondents’ privacy and adding English-language material to programming aimed at Hispanics. “The Latino community in the U.S. is largely English-speaking,” he said, “and they have no targeted English-language advertising for the Latino community.”

Lowenthal called for Congress to “start a conversation about what level of inaccuracy in a census is acceptable. Then the bureau can explore a range of methods that help meet that goal, whatever it is. ‘Fit for use,’ which is the bureau’s default standard of acceptable quality, does not mean the results are acceptable.”


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