Reduced Census Funding Could Lead to Unequal Representation

by: Charles D. Ellison Special to the AFRO
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When the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent federal watch-dog agency, released its 2017 “High Risk List” of dysfunctional, inefficient, and wasteful programs, the 2020 Decennial Census made the top three – out of a total of 34.

The last 2010 Census was reportedly riddled with disorganization and badly managed overhead. The once-every-decade planning proved inept as the Bureau, unable to creatively prepare for the tabulation of nearly 140 million households and missing the technology to do it, had to make an eleventh-hour scramble for staff and resources. The result: a more than 30 percent cost overrun from the previous 2000 Census, more than $12 billion versus $9.4 billion, and the most expensive Census ever.  Just counting one “housing unit” in 2010 cost $92 compared to only $16 in 1970.

“The return of census questionnaires by mail (the primary mode of data collection) declined . . .  from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010,” said the High Risk List report. “Declining mail response rates – a key indicator of a cost-effective census – are significant and lead to higher costs. This is because the Bureau sends enumerators to each non-responding household to obtain census data. As a result, non-response follow-up (NRFU) is the Bureau’s largest and most costly field operation.”

However, the timing of the report, say some observers in the civil rights community, could not be worse for Black communities. On the heels of the report’s findings is also what some critics point to as a troubling Trump administration decrease in funding for Census activities. The stakes are high for an accurate Census count in 2020 since a complete count of the country’s Black population ensures committed federal funding to those communities and a preservation or enhancement of Black political power based on proportional Black constituencies.

“Census data are vital to the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of a wide range of civil rights laws and policies, from fair political representation and voting reforms, to equal opportunity and access across all economic and social sectors of society, including housing, education, health care, and the job market,” says Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “That’s why ensuring a fair and accurate census is a top priority of the civil and human rights coalition. Communities of color, urban and rural low-income households, immigrants, and young children are all at risk of being missed at disproportionately high rates.”

Should a call for “efficiencies” in the 2020 Census translate into policymakers proposing less investment in the crucial population count, many worry that could trigger a disastrous undercounting of the Black population.  An undercounting of the Black population would then lead to fewer federal dollars flowing to Black communities and, potentially, fewer Black elected officials.

The Census count is the main decennial exercise that determines how state legislative and Congressional districts are drawn or mapped out by state legislators. If the Census tabulates fewer Black residents, Republicans in charge of state legislatures can eliminate Black-majority districts or districts that favor Black elected officials. That results in less political representation and less focus on policy issues of critical importance to the larger Black electorate.

While the proposed Trump White House FY 2018 budget recommends a $130 million increase from fiscal year 2017 to 2018, or about 10 percent, that’s still half the Obama administration’s 20 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 for the Bureau. In fact, both administrations oversaw marked reductions in Census Bureau spending compared to the Bush II administration, which increased spending by 34 percent in 2008 from 2006.  What’s also problematic for the Bureau is the Trump administration’s request for an overall 16 percent reduction in the Bureau’s parent agency the Department of Commerce.

Even the Census itself admitted to undercounts, including a 2.1 percent undercount of the Black population in 2010 compared to 1.8 percent in 2000 (although downplaying the significance of it).  And the Bureau’s unwillingness to place the “Black alone-or-in-combination” category (which includes bi-racial Black people) on the form, along with controversies over how to count Black Diaspora migrants – such as those from the Caribbean – into the final official count prevented the final tally from being 15 percent instead of the 13 percent currently relied on.

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