Why do we have a census? Well, it’s in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 2): “The actual Enumeration [of the people in the states] shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”
What do we do with the numbers? Two main things: determine how to divvy up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states, and how $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to local governments each year. More than $15 billion of that is for Minnesota, and the state is currently at risk of losing one of its congressional seats.
Most developed nations conduct counts of their populations every 10 years; a few, like Australia and New Zealand, count themselves every five. The purpose of the census has moved from its Roman legacy of assessing the country’s inhabitants for taxes to the distribution of representatives and services.
In the U.S., nationwide censuses have been held every ten years since 1790; if the year ends in a zero, it’s census time. Part of that unbroken record is luck. The Civil War, World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic, and World War II all fell within the decades and had little or no effect on the count. Since 1950, the Census Bureau has mailed forms to every household in the country, and in 1970, it was made illegal to fail to return the form. Individual census records are sealed for 72 years; only the aggregate data is made public.
Researchers use two main measures to determine who was missed in the census: omissions and net undercounts. Omissions reflect the number of people who should have been counted in the census but were not, while net undercounts reflect the percent of people who were missed minus the percent who were double counted. In 2010, while the undercount was statistically zero, the nationwide census missed an estimated 16 million people, nearly 5% of the population.
Renters were three times as likely to be missed as homeowners, and individual states varied widely in their percentages. And that was in a year without a nationwide health emergency that has scattered many families, and affected mail deliveries to highly mobile groups. The net increase in immigration from other countries, along with language barriers and homelessness add to the difficulty of counting. When a community is undercounted, fewer federal dollars are sent there. In traditionally undercounted areas, many of which rely on federally-funded programs, the inequities can only increase.
An undercount is never more than an estimate, but the census response rate, updated daily, can indicate trouble spots. Census tracts, area subdivisions of 1,200 to 8,000 people, are what the census workers look at; the tracts are redrawn after each census.
Northeast Minneapolis has 15 census tracts; St. Anthony Village has three. Hennepin County reports that a tract that includes part of the Bottineau neighborhood has a lower-than-average response rate (59%). Northeast Minneapolis as a whole is averaging about 75%; St. Anthony Village is above 90%.
This year, census forms were sent out on March 12, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Census Bureau to stop field operations a week later. In April, the Bureau stated it would need at least until October 31, 2020 to finish the count, and requested that Congress provide a four-month extension because of the pandemic’s impact. While most operations resumed by early June, on August 3 the Bureau changed the deadline for counting from October 31 to September 30, saying the change was necessary to meet the legal requirement to deliver the count to the President by December 31.
According to a recent NPR report, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, has emphasized in recent weeks that the agency is “on its way to delivering a successful count” by incentivizing its door knockers to work more hours to get unresponsive households counted “without sacrificing quality.” But former Census Bureau Director Ken Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 count, said, “If you want an accurate census, the quality checks are as important as the initial enumeration itself.” The last-minute schedule changes have left the agency’s staff scrambling to decide what quality checks to trim or toss out. A growing number of former Census Bureau officials and other census advocates are raising the alarm that the shortened timetable for processing responses is likely to further affect adversely the accuracy of the data and increase undercounts of people of color, immigrants and other historically undercounted groups.
If you have an uncompleted census form, fill it out and send it in. If you haven’t, answer your doorbell when a census worker rings. We will all benefit from your response.