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Ending census count early is a mistake that will hurt communities | COMMENTARY

The Trump administration's decision to end the census count early could result in severe undercounting that hurts federal funding communities receive.
The Trump administration's decision to end the census count early could result in severe undercounting that hurts federal funding communities receive. (LM Otero/AP)

Buried under the flood of information about the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s economic struggles was news of a policy switch that puts the accuracy of the 2020 Census very much in doubt.

Overruling the views of the Census Bureau’s professional staff, the Trump administration has rashly declared that the on-the-ground counting of people will end Sept. 30, a month earlier than planned. The administration also has announced that it will cut the time taken to analyze the data and ensuring its accuracy by 40%, from five months to three.

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This is an extremely bad decision, and we are deeply concerned that this will lead to a severe undercounting in many communities — from big cities and suburbs to rural communities.

Undercounting our population will mean that certain communities don’t get their fair share of federal spending based on population — for everything from Medicaid funding and economic development to child care, education, roads and mass transit.

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Undercounting will also have implications for political representation at the federal, state and local levels, threatening the basic structure of our electoral democracy.

We know from experience that the census has traditionally had trouble getting a full and accurate count of certain communities, especially people of color, people in rural areas, those who lack a permanent address or live in high-poverty areas and immigrant families. These changes by the Census Bureau will only worsen that undercounting in those communities. At the same time, white and affluent communities tend to be counted at much higher rates. As our organizations work to center equity, in particular racial equity, during this time, we must sound the alarm bells.

We recognize that the census this year has faced incredible challenges as the pandemic has made it far more difficult to recruit and train surveyors and has prevented face-to-face surveying in many communities. In Maryland, about a third of households are still to be counted; but in some jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, the counting rate is significantly lower.

And across the country, about four in 10 households are still to be counted. Only a handful of states have matched their 2010 levels to date of how many people responded to the Census the last time around, according to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research at City University of New York.

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In other words, we are far behind where we were in counting 10 years ago and the Trump administration wants to cut the count short. It doesn’t add up.

This decision has rightly sparked outrage. Four former directors of the Census Bureau who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations urged Congress to step in to make sure we make enough time for counting and analysis. Locally, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball immediately announced the county will join a national lawsuit challenging the census decisions, as have many other elected officials. This is a matter of fairness and funding. For every Howard resident not counted, the county loses out on almost $18,000 in federal funding — money that would pay for vital programs.

Nearly 900 national, state and community groups have also called on Congress to extend the time for the Census Bureau to do the count. In addition, more than 500 foundations, including the Horizon Foundation in Columbia and others in the state, signed onto a letter opposing any shortening of the census timeline. Here’s why: Foundations working to improve lives and communities rely on census data to help identify community needs and prioritize how they make grants. Indeed, many foundations have provided funding to help make sure the count is accurate in overlooked communities as part of a commitment to advancing equity in how our country spends public money.

The census has been a bedrock institution in this country since 1790, providing an apolitical, accurate count of the people in this country and collecting valuable data about our people. Its data fuels government policy, informs business decisions and plays an enormous role in the work of countless foundations and nonprofits. However, to date, we have not heard a reasonable, apolitical explanation for cutting off the count early and truncating the analysis.

Every person should count in America, and it’s time for Congress to step in and make sure we take the time to get the census right.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick (NHVernick@thehorizonfoundation.org) is president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia. Mike Mitchell (mmitchell@firnonline.org) is executive director of Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network in Howard County.

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