Happy Hump Day, fellow data voyagers! Web Wednesday, a semi-regular feature on 33 North,  is intended to remind us of recent “hot spots” on the data landscape, and point back to relevant resources and links for more learning on the given topic(s).  

The Decennial (every 10 years) Census count is a constitutional requirement in the United States. It’s a critical contributor to describing the status of our economy and the structure of our society. As its principle function, it affects the level of representation that we all get (as citizens) in our government. The 2020 census count will affect state congressional districts for the 2022 midterm elections and the electoral college for 2024.  It is also a key source of the data that statisticians  analyze to inform policymakers’ decisions for local communities. At the most practical level, if you want federal funding for a grant to benefit your community, Census data will play a large part in determining the likelihood of your community getting that grant.

Funding for the Census—all Census programs in fact—has had trouble keeping up with the complexity of the job as the U.S. has added people while methods have remained relatively static. Reliance on mail surveying to date has made return rates critical, and these rates vary tremendously by area. Hiring enough workers to revisit non-responsive households is more and more daunting.  Technological advancements in maintaining and processing the count are in process, but have often proved elusive.  Technology of collecting and tracking data aside, the challenge of finding the people to count has become more complex, with a key danger of under-counting. There are already mechanisms in place to identify concentrations of hard-to-count populations, but minorities and urban residents are most frequently missed, as are children

Linked Concerns: 2020 Census

Other frequently under-counted populations are immigrants–and that points to a “hot” Census story in the news lately.  The Commerce Department, which oversees Census programs, said it would resume asking people whether they are citizens—a practice abandoned in 1950.  The Department’s reasoning is that the additional question will better enable enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, by providing “more granular data on who is and isn’t a U.S. citizen so that it can better enforce protections for minorities.”  Citizenship is already asked on the American Community Survey (ACS), which releases 5-year estimates every year at the census tract level.  But whereas the Decennial Census is an attempt to count the entire population*, the ACS estimates are based on a sample of only 3.5 million households each year.

More than a dozen states have issued lawsuits to block the administration from adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, amid a wider dispute over immigration. The states argue that the question is unconstitutional and would deter both legal and illegal immigrants from answering the census altogether, resulting in under-counts of the population and fewer House seats.  Former U.S. Census Bureau chiefs have even weighed in on the issue, cautioning the Commerce Department in a formal letter.