2020 Census: Congressional Seats, Federal Funds at Risk

 Susan Milligan

For states, the 2020 Census is about as high-stakes as it gets, determining not only the number of congressional seats and electoral college votes a state gets, but how much money the federal government sends them in various grants and aid. And California is taking no chances, investing a jaw-dropping $90.4 million to make sure everyone – no matter their native language, citizenship status or location in the Golden State – gets counted.

"When people don't get counted, they get erased from history," says state Sen. Richard Pan, chair of the California Senate's Select Committee on 2010 United States Census. Not only does the state lose cash – about $2,000 per uncounted person, per year, for the decade the census numbers are operational – but medical studies, business marketing, employment and a slew of other priorities are hurt if the state doesn't know how many people it has, where they live and what they need, Pan says.

A number of states have started work on "Complete Count" committees to ensure their residents are fully tallied, but California has what census and redistricting experts say is by far the most aggressive and extensive effort underway. Part of it is driven by the sheer size and diversity of the state, where at least 220 languages are spoken and 44 percent of residents say they speak a language other than English at home. And part is what officials delicately call "the current climate," one in which immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are fearful of sharing their personal information with a federal government they associate with deportations and immigration raids.

New for the 2020 Census is a question about citizenship status – a query that has been asked on follow-up American Community Survey reports but not in the full census of all U.S. residents since 1950. While the law explicitly bans the government from using U.S. Census data for law enforcement purposes – indeed, any purpose other than basic fact collection – some residents, including those who are here legally but may have undocumented family members, may instead choose not to answer the Census at all.

"We've been spending the past year and a half telling people, 'When the federal government knocks on the door, don't open it,'" Pan says, referring to efforts by the "sanctuary state" to protect people from ICE raids. Now, the state will need to convince people they can and should fill out their Census forms without fear.

California is using the same template it employed for another outreach effort with similar challenges: enrollments for the Affordable Care Act exchanges.. The same dynamics were at play, experts note – suspicion about, and ignorance of the law and worries that the information gathered might be used against people. And California's aggressive campaign on health care worked, with 3.3 million people signed up for Covered California and Medi-Cal from Oct. 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014.

Census data, collected once a decade, determines the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal monies a year. It's also used to draw both state legislative and congressional district lines, affecting not just an entire state's political influence, but the power of certain communities.

Even if a state's total count keeps it from losing a congressional seat, for example, an undercount in a heavily Latino or Native American population could mean those communities are lopped onto a majority-white district, diluting their power.

People walk around Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, Nev. on August 16, 2017.

A comprehensive examination by the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York shows that residents in border states, states with high minority populations, and states with remote areas and islands (like Alaska) are particularly hard to count. College students, homeless and poor people, young children, LGBT people and those who do not speak English well are also notoriously hard to count, experts say.

California and other states are corralling trusted community leaders, nonprofits, churches – even the person who runs the neighborhood beauty salon or deli – to get the word out.

"A lot of it is just making connections with the local community groups, A lot of the issues of trust can only be solved at the personal, face-to-face level," says Susan Brower, director of the Minnesota State Demographic Center. The state is developing a "Minnesota-specific" effort, including translations for the Somali and Hmong-speaking communities. The state will end up spending about $700,000 on its outreach effort, she says.

The citizenship question is being challenged in several lawsuits brought by more than two dozen states and cities, which worry that it will exacerbate undercounts of populations already considered hard to count. Census data is associated with an address, and not individuals, imperiling a full count if just a single resident fears the government questionnaire, says Thomas Wolf, a lawyer and redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice.

"Adding a citizenship question is inevitably going to produce an undercount among communities already historically hard to count," Wolf says. "It's not just individuals who may be non-citizens – it could be a household headed by a non-citizen with several citizen children in it," he adds.

Others worry that a landlord may learn there are more people living in a household than allowed, or that their state governments may find out they spend more or fewer days in state than reported on their state tax forms. And some people simply distrust the federal government in general, or resent being asked to offer up personal information (though the Census does not ask for names or social security numbers).

All of that "could really skew the numbers," said Jeffrey M. Wice, a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and a leader in New York Counts 2020, the Empire State's complete count program. In New York, "it's going to be a massive education and outreach campaign," adds Wice, who is now analyzing his fifth U.S. Census. "You have to make sure you find the right mix of navigators, people who can go literally door to door and make sure households are counted," he adds.

New for the 2020 Census as well is the ability to fill out forms on the internet. That could improve the response rate, especially if volunteers help people do the online form on the spot, census experts say. But in other areas - such as the string of islands along the Alaska coast — it's not helpful since many don't have internet access, says Eddie Hunsinger, Alaska's state demographer. "Alaska native populations are definitely included in the hard-to-count" category, Hunsinger says.

The Alaska count is especially costly, he says, because workers have to "go into the field to do the count directly, rather than mail out, mail back."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states (Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Rhode Island) have made moves toward creation of Complete Count Committees. Governors in six states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi) have issued executive orders creating some committees. More states are expected to follow as the 2020 Census gets closer.

Pan is baffled by some states that have high levels of traditionally undercounted populations (like Texas and New Mexico) that have yet to take aggressive action to make sure their residents are reached and accounted for. Texas is expected to pick up two or three congressional seats after the 2020 Census count, while it's anticipated that new Mexico will keep its current number of three seats. Benjamin Cloutier, a spokesman for New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, said in an email that the state was in the process of creating a Complete Count effort.

And if other states don't make sure they are fully counted? "We'll take their congressional seat," Pan jokes.

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