Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, people are already anxious about participating in the 2020 Census. (Courtesy photo)

Estimate of a 2020 census undercount is growing

Census advocates in California and elsewhere are working to remediate the atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Census advocates in California and elsewhere are working to remediate the atmosphere of fear and suspicion surrounding the upcoming census due to the Trump administration’s push to add the question — “Is this person a citizen of the United States” — to the 2020 Census questionnaire.

Census data informs us about who we are as a nation, and where we live; identifies how federal funds are allocated to states, localities and families every year; and determines political representation in Congress.

The Supreme Court had not ruled on the citizenship question as of this writing, but is expected to this week. And, on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) submitted two new findings to the Supreme Court. The first was on the political and prejudicial motivations behind the Trump administration’s decision to include the citizenship question to the 2020 Census; and the second on the results of a new Census Bureau study that found that “the addition of a citizenship question will have an 8.0 percentage point larger effect on self-response rates in households that may have noncitizens relative to those with only U.S. citizens.” In other words, the undercount is predicted to be larger than what was previously anticipated.

Calling the potential undercount of low-income, minority and immigrant populations in the 2020 Census a “most urgent civil rights issue facing America,” Beth Lynk, Census Counts campaign director at The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said that regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, people are already anxious about participating in the 2020 Census.

As part of a field study to evaluate the effect of adding the citizenship question, the Census Bureau sent out 480,000 sample questionnaires a few weeks ago to randomly selected households across the nation. These test questionnaires closely modeled the actual census questionnaire, with one difference: about half of them contained the citizenship question.

The analysis of the results will help determine the size and nature of the resources necessary to ensure a fair and accurate count, “such as how many census takers are needed to follow up with nonresponding households and how to better communicate with households about the 2020 Census,” the Census Bureau said in a press release.

This is too little, too late, emphasized John C. Yang, president and executive director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who contends that the citizenship question has not been tested adequately. Evaluating whether to add a question to the census is usually a decade-long process, where “the language of the question, the placement of the question and the appearance of the question are all tested” to ensure that the Census Bureau gets full and accurate responses. The citizenship question was added as recently as March of last year.

Whether the citizenship question is included in the 2020 Census or not, the Urban Institute projects that the undercount of minorities and immigrants and overcount of whites will result in a net national undercount of four million people.

Among minorities, the black population is critically at risk of being undercounted. Jeri Green, the 2020 census senior advisor at National Urban League, pointed out that the 2010 census had a 2.5 percent undercount of the overall black population, with a 7.6 percent undercount of black males and 6.3 percent of young black children, “twice the rate of young, white children.”

The undercount is also fed in other ways. A 2018 San Joaquin Valley census study reported that a number of unconventional housing units in Fresno, San Jose and San Francisco were not included in the Census Master Address Files (MAF) — a continuously updated nationwide compilation of addresses. These unconventional units could be “converted garages, basements, back of the house add-ons, informally built living quarters and trailers in backyards” and are makeshift dwellings that spring up to house low-income individuals and families which often don’t have mailboxes assigned to them and hence are invisible to census takers.

In San Francisco, canvassing within a radius of 9 census blocks, covering 5,346 housing units, the study found 214 new housing units with an average of 3.1 persons living in each unit. If these units don’t have a corresponding entry in the MAF, the residents are not going to receive a census questionnaire, and would hence be part of the undercount.

In fact, one of the key findings of the report was that unconventional units being left out of the MAF accounted for 30 percent of the total undercount of low-income minority and immigrant families. At a census briefing in Stockton in May, Cindy Quezada of The Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC), one of the authors of the study, emphasized that more than one in four immigrant households lack standard mail delivery to their doors. Out of that, one out of eight said that they used a P.O. box, an additional 12 percent claimed to share mailboxes and 3 percent indicated that their mail was picked up by friends and family. These households are unlikely to receive the census questionnaire unless their housing arrangements are in the MAF.

A census undercount oppresses minority communities, erases minority voices, minimizes the minority presence and reduces minority impact. These effects, however, are large-scale and long-lasting and will be felt by each and every one of us. We must make sure everyone is counted.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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