2020 census: How undercounts and overcounts can hurt US communities

2020 census: How undercounts and overcounts can hurt US communities

Denise-Marie Ordway |
July 2, 2019

2020 census: How undercounts and overcounts can hurt US communities

As the Trump administration considers delaying the 2020 census to improve its chances of including a citizenship question, researchers, immigrant advocates and others have openly denounced the plan’s potential to discourage some U.S. residents from participating in the nation’s decennial population count.

Critics have argued the move specifically targets Latinos and could have serious financial and political ramifications for many years to come

The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to count the American population every decade to determine how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives should be divided among the 50 states. If the tally is wrong, some states will get more seats than they should and others will get fewer. An accurate census also is important because population information is used to adjust the Electoral College and make decisions about how to distribute funds for hundreds of federal programs — from Medicaid and food stamps to highway construction and special education.

Despite the significant time and money spent conducting each decennial census, certain groups of residents consistently are “undercounted,” or have low response rates. A report the U.S. Census Bureau released two years after the most recent census in 2010 offers a detailed look at problems with its population estimates. While the net counts for the last three censuses were generally accurate, according to the report, a number of subgroups were miscounted. For example, the 2010 census undercounted the number of people who rent their homes by 1.1%; overcounted white, non-Hispanic residents by 0.8% and undercounted 2.1% of the black population.

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