The Census Bureau is working to restore trust in the numbers gathered during the 2020 census by addressing issues caused by the unprecedented challenges of conducting a U.S. head count during a pandemic, natural disasters, and Trump administration efforts to politicize the process.
Demographers, advocates, and others who rely on census data are keeping a close eye on things and are pleased with what they’ve seen so far, but they want to see how the fixes are implemented before passing judgment.
The Census Bureau announced last week that it will depart from past practice and will not rely solely on 2020 census data to produce annual estimates of the U.S. population. The projections are used to help distribute $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year, as well as to track annual population change through 2030. For the first time, bureau statisticians will combine some of the 2020 census data with other data sets for the base when numbers for 2021 and possibly 2022 are released.
According to Christine Hartley, a Census Bureau official, statisticians needed time to evaluate the census data to ensure it was usable for the estimates.
Another fix proposed by the Census Bureau would allow states, municipalities, and tribal nations to challenge results on the number of people living in dorms, prisons, nursing homes, and other places where people live in group quarters for the first time. When the pandemic began in the United States in March 2020, students on campus were sent home, and prisons and nursing homes went into lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
According to some experts, the fixes serve as a reality check on bureau officials’ sometimes overly optimistic attitude toward a head count that faced formidable challenges and delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, and attempts by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question that failed but may have scared off some people from participating.
Despite the Census Bureau’s transparency in releasing quality measures of data gathered in the face of unprecedented challenges, “in doing so, it always puts the best face possible on what is happening,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund.
Demographer William O’Hare, who has advocated for ensuring that children are fully counted, believes that the “blended base” approach will improve estimates for children by utilizing highly accurate birth certificate data. Missing children are a major concern, as an analysis conducted earlier this year by O’Hare revealed a 4.4 percent undercount of Hispanic children in the 2020 census.
The bureau’s own assessment of the accuracy of its 2020 census will not be made public until next year, when it issues a report card on how well it did. An American Statistical Association task force said earlier this year that its review found no irregularities that indicated the results were unfit for use in apportioning congressional seats, or that they were of lower quality than those in 2010.
However, according to an Urban Institute analysis, people of color, renters, noncitizens, children, and people living in Texas — the state with the most growth in the country — were most likely to be missed, albeit by smaller margins than some had predicted for a count conducted under such difficult conditions.
There are some concerns about census data that the announced changes will not address, such as the Census Bureau’s new privacy technique, which inserts inaccuracies at very small geographic levels to protect the confidentiality of participants, such as the only family of a certain ethnicity living in a specific geographic area. According to Eric Guthrie, senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center, some small-town officials are concerned that sparsely populated communities are not being accurately described.
In an additional effort to maintain confidentiality, the Census Bureau is considering not including granular data when it releases the next round of 2020 census numbers next year. The data will cover housing and family relationships, and the bureau claims it has gone to great lengths to produce accurate information while protecting the privacy of those taking part in the nation’s head count.