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How pandemic, politicization could jeopardize 2020 census

The United States Census is always a daunting challenge, but in 2020, the effort is further complicated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. With a compressed timeline to complete the once-per-decade population count, some census officials worry that the effort is being politicized -- and is likely to undercount certain groups. Amna Nawaz talks to NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang, who covers the Census Bureau.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. census is always a daunting challenge, now made more complicated by COVID.

    Amna Nawaz explores the hurdles facing the once-in-a-decade population count.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The deadline for counting the 2020 census is fast approaching.

    The Census Bureau announced that it's ending door-to-door outreach efforts at the end of September, a month earlier than planned. That's sent local organizers into a scramble to reach hard-to-count communities.

    There are hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds at stake, and pivotal congressional seats hang in the balance.

    NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been reporting on the census, and he joins me now.

    Hansi, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with that timeline and help people understand what it is behind it. What drove that shortened timeline, moving it up from the end of October to the end of September? And what's the potential impact?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, this is a surprise move by the Census Bureau, who — and the bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, has said this was following a directive from the commerce secretary, who oversees the Census Bureau.

    Essentially, the Trump administration has taken the position that they want to cut short counting for the 2020 census by a month in order to meet a current legal deadline, which is by the end of this year, December 31. The latest state population counts are due to the president. Those are the counts used to redistribute seats in Congress.

    What's interesting is that, recently, President Trump issued a memo saying that he wants to adjust those counts once he gets them as president. He wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from those counts, even though the Constitution says that those numbers should include every person living in the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you about this new process the Census Bureau has had to undertake, because a shortened timeline means they're crunched to reach communities they have already had trouble reaching during a pandemic.

    We have already seen a lag in response rates from a number of census officials we have spoken to, as compared to 2010. I want to play for you a little bit of sound from one local official we talked to who is seeing that kind of lag.

    This is Michael Thurmond. He's the CEO of DeKalb County, Georgia. He said it's a very diverse area, a big Latinx, a big immigrant community. He says he is worried about a severe undercount. Take a listen to him.

  • Michael Thurmond:

    The best, clearest most — example as to why the census is so important, as to why every resident must and should be counted is, look no further than the CARES Act dollars that are being distributed across this nation.

    Undercount in the census results in underfunding to fight one of the most challenging diseases we face.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hansi, that concern we heard from Mr. Thurmond, how unique is that?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    You hear that a lot from a lot of places around the country. We're in the middle of an unpredictable pandemic, a historic hurricane season.

    We don't know what these next few weeks are going to — what's going to happen, and whether or not Census Bureau workers, door-knockers, who are already out there trying to reach those households that have not participated yet, what new challenges may be coming their way?

    Already, the census workers that I have been talking to, they say they're having trouble with the iPhones that they have been issued to try to collect this information. They're seeing delays in being trained and a lot of pressure to go out in the field, while having not feeling adequately trained in these situations.

    There are a lot of challenges here, and this shortened time frame really just exacerbates all of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hansi, you mentioned something else I want to ask you about. That was the Trump administration's attempt to exclude the undocumented population from some of those counts for reapportionment purposes.

    But we also heard a lot about their attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. That was eventually shot down by the Supreme Court. But we asked census managers about this around the country.

    I want to play for you a little bit of sound from Nestor Lopez. He's the census coordinator for Hidalgo County, Texas. He says the effort alone to try to add that citizenship question is already having an impact. Take a listen.

  • Nestor Lopez:

    Even today, we still hear people asking, are they going to ask me about my citizenship status, because my family or the people living in my household, we do have mixed status. So that fear often just results in inaction.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hansi, have you heard from others that the messaging alone, the attempt to add that question could have some kind of chilling effect?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    I have.

    And you also hear from community groups who have spoken to some of the challengers of the apportionment memo that President Trump recently issued. All of this rhetoric and all of this talk about who should be included, who should not be included, even though, again, supposed to be a count of every person living in the country, there is a lot of concern that there is a lot of mixed messaging going around.

    And, in fact, a lot of people still don't know that the 2020 census does not include a question about citizenship status. It also does not include anything about a person's immigration status, which is one reason why people say, experts say, that President Trump's call to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the enforcement count, that it's not possible and it's not legal, that there is no way to do that in a legal way and in a practical way, because there's no question on immigration status.

    So, the Census Bureau is collecting people's information not knowing what people's immigration status is. And so it's going to be really hard to try to exclude certain populations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hansi, there is this other concern we have heard from a number of census officials across the country, and that is that their bureau is being politicized. Have you heard something similar?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    I have heard there's concerns.

    And, recently, the Trump administration appointed two new political appointees, a political science professor who specializes in African politics, a new senior adviser to this new deputy director for policy. Both of them, their qualifications are very unclear.

    And you have the American Statistical Association, other professional associations raising questions about what qualifies these individuals to take on top-level policy roles at a time when the Census Bureau is trying to finish a once-a-decade head count.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hansi, before we go, very briefly, with all of these concerns, is there any way that this will be now done right? Have we reached a point of no return?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    It's really hard to say at this point.

    There are a lot of factors against the 2020 census. But one thing to keep in mind here is, the Constitution calls for a count once a decade. And there is a chance that, whatever numbers are collected, the data collected over the next weeks may be the data we all as a country have to live with for the next 10 years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who covers the Census Bureau, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much, Hansi.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    You're welcome, Amna.

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