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What risks does ending the census count early pose?

The Census Bureau will stop its 2020 census count including in-person, mail, by phone and online on September 30, a month sooner than scheduled despite the delays caused by COVID-19. Hansi Lo Wang, a national correspondent at NPR, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how this change may leave out historically undercounted groups including communities of color and immigrants.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This past week the U.S. Census bureau suddenly announced that it will end all counting for the 2020 census on September 30th, a full month earlier than scheduled. The critical count requires that all people living in the U.S. be counted and efforts to get responses are being slowed during the coronavirus pandemic.

    I spoke with National Public Radio reporter Hansi Lo Wang earlier this week about the census count and the decision to move up the deadline.

    Hansi, what does a shortened amount of days that the Census Bureau will knock on doors mean?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    This means the Census Bureau has even less time than it was trying to really finish the count of every person living in the country. Right now, roughly four out of ten households nationwide have not been counted yet. And these remaining households are what the Census Bureau considers the hardest to count.

    These are populations that have been historically undercounted and include people of color, renters, rural residents, groups that are not likely to fill out a form on their own. And that's why this door knocking, that's about to roll out nationwide next week, that door knocking is so critical to making sure that no one is left out and no resident is left out of account.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, that's hard enough as it is. Lay on top of that, a pandemic where people are scared to be within a few feet of one another.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Door knocking is the largest, most expensive operation because it is really hard work and trying to do it while socially trying, trying to keep social distance, that's very hard. And I mean the PPE and trying to overcome people, people's public health concerns.

    But now to do that in a short amount of time, in the middle of hurricane season, as well as weeks after the Trump administration, after President Trump issued a memo calling for unauthorized immigrants to be excluded from the census in general, but specifically from the census numbers used to reapportion seats in Congress, that's causing a lot of confusion.

    A lot of outreach campaigns are saying confusion among folks, even though the Constitution says that counting of the whole number of persons in each state, that's the number that should be used to reapportion seats in Congress. And even though there are federal laws that say a person's personally identifiable information cannot be used against them by any federal agency or in court.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, you know, you have been following this beat for quite some time now. And there was this sort of drama about the citizenship question. Then obviously came the pandemic. And here we are thinking about apportionment.

    What kind of power does that leave in the hands of the president, even if he were to lose this election?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    First thing I think it's should be very clear, there is no citizenship question on the 2020 census. The federal courts have blocked that from being added to the forms.

    However, the Trump administration has moved forward with this memo calling for the commerce secretary to try to figure out a way to exclude unauthorized immigrants in the apportionment count.

    And, you know, here's one thing to keep in mind here, by not extending the counting, by not extending the deadlines for reporting the census results, what this means is that by the end of this year, under federal law, the president will receive the latest state population counts. That is what the Census Bureau right now is working toward.

    And those are the states, those state population counts, those are the numbers that President Trump, who his memo says he wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The census has to be completed by a certain time. Right?

    So if this does not go well, is there some sort of statistical threshold where the census takers can just say, look, we actually don't have an accurate picture of who's in this country beyond a reasonable doubt. And we kind of need a do over.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    That's a big open question at this point.

    The Census Bureau doesn't have necessarily deadlines to set. Doesn't have set legal deadlines for ending of counting. But it does have reporting deadlines and December 31 is that key deadline.

    And the question is, does the Census Bureau have enough time to finish a count and also have enough time to process all those results to make sure that there aren't duplicate results and do any type of cleaning necessary to make sure this is the most accurate data set possible.

    And the big question is also is, are there going to be enough indicators and metrics for the Census Bureau as well as outside researchers to really make that assessment of how good is the 2020 census? How good are these results?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joining us from New York. Thanks so much.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    You're welcome, Hari.

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