The Census Bureau is preparing to wind down certain decennial census operations a month earlier than planned, NPR reported Thursday, amid growing signs that the White House is pushing for a rushed count at the risk of undermining the decennial census’ accuracy.
After the coronavirus outbreak scrambled the launch of the census this spring, the Bureau had reworked its operational timeline to give itself until the end of October to finish its data collection activities. To accommodate the need for this extra time, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in April requested that Congress postpone by four months the statutory deadlines for when the Bureau is required to deliver the data for congressional apportionment and redistricting. Those deadlines are normally Dec. 31 and March 31, respectively.
But with the announcement that President Trump wants undocumented immigrants excluded from apportionment data, it appears the administration is now walking away from that request — presumably because the delay would let a Joe Biden administration reverse Trump’s apportionment policy, which stands to reduce political representation for immigrant-rich states. The extensions were absent from Senate Republicans’ recent coronavirus legislation, even though House Democrats had already agreed to the delays in their proposal.
The new report that a key step in the census process is being cut short by a month is another indication that the administration is laying a groundwork for keeping the Bureau on the usual timeline of finishing by the end of the year, despite the many ways the pandemic has slowed down the counting operations.
The Census Bureau has publicly remained coy on the state of the extension request to Congress and its own Trump-appointed director claimed to lawmakers this week he was not involved in those negotiations. But, internally, employees are being told that the in-person data collection from households will end on Sept. 30, instead of Oct. 31, according to the NPR report.
The administration has not explicitly admitted that the count is being sped up so the Bureau can deliver the apportionment data by the end of the year, but that is widely believed to be the goal.
Regardless, former Census officials, redistricting experts, civil rights advocates and lawmakers are all ringing the alarm about the impact these machinations will have on the accuracy of the count.
“The big question is whether we’re going to have a census good enough to release,” former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, who lead the Bureau between 1998 and 2001, told TPM.
The coronavirus outbreak posed steep challenges to the 2020 census, which had already been facing obstacles with confusion wrought by the citizenship question fight and other controversies about this year’s count.
Many of the activities the Bureau had planned to encourage census participation and to count people who might not respond on their own are built around the kinds of in-person interactions that must be limited due the outbreak.
For households that don’t respond to the census on their own, the Bureau typically sends in-person enumerators to try to get them counted, as part of a process known as nonresponse follow up. In large swaths of the country, self-response rates are still well behind what they were at the end of the 2010 census.
In some places, “it’s like five or 10 points less than what it was in 2010, so they’re going to need much more nonresponse follow up, which really paints a stark picture of the disproportionate impact of shortchanging the nonresponse follow up operations,” said Steven Romalewski, the director of CUNY Mapping Service who has been tracking census response rates.
There’s much that’s still unclear about what the newly-reported cutbacks mean for various census operations.
As of now, the Bureau hasn’t answered questions about whether Americans will still be able to respond to the census themselves through Oct. 31, a date that was widely publicized after the timeline was reworked for the pandemic.
“It would really undermine confidence in the Census Bureau if it were to change the date so abruptly,” said Terri Anne Lowenthal, a consultant who is a well-regarded expert on the census.
The Bureau issued a statement after the NPR report acknowledging it was “currently evaluating our operations to enable the Census Bureau to provide this data in the most expeditious manner.” However it has not publicly confirmed that the timeline for data collection has been expedited, even as several references to the Oct. 31 end date were scrubbed from the Census website over the course of the week.
Another big question is what it has planned for work that happens after data collection wraps, which usually lasts about five months, according to Lowenthal. If the Trump administration insist on the apportionment data being delivered by Dec. 31, then the Bureau will have only two to three months instead.
“Not only is the administration forcing the Census Bureau to rush data collection, it is forcing the Bureau to rush the critical work that’s done after that to review, improve, process and tabulate the data,” Lowenthal said.
Noting the way the pandemic has displaced people across the country, she called those operations, “more important than ever.”