By Katherine Reynolds Lewis for Equal Voice News
The U.S. census is a big deal for Springdale, Arkansas.
As the 2020 census looms, some are worried about plans to ask people about their citizenship. They warn that adding that question to the Census could lower response rates and result in undercounting among vulnerable populations, including immigrants and families living in poverty. It’s another wrinkle in the current census that is already behind schedule and underfunded.
And that undercounting could be devastating to vital social service programs in cities like Springdale that are already struggling to cope with the need.
About 300 federal programs allocate over $800 billion every year based on census-derived data sets. If the Census doesn’t reach families, Springdale – and other local governments across the country – could receive a smaller slice of funding than they deserve.
“In Arkansas, we’re number one or two in poverty, depending on the year,” said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. ”So many programs that are meant to create ladders out of poverty are determined by census data…there’s a ton at stake.”
An accurate census means Springdale’s schools will have more money, low-income families will have better access to healthy food and affordable housing, and highway funding is more likely to rise at a rate consistent with population growth. It also helps ensure that community clinics and hospitals receive resources to serve patients, many of whom rely on Medicaid.
In Springdale, the need for those social service program runs deep. About 15 percent of the city’s residents rely on federal assistance to buy food. There are 2,560 children living in poverty, though Springdale has just 150 slots for Head Start and Early Head Start, federal early education programs for low-income families. And in Springdale Public Schools, about 10 percent of children have learning disabilities.
“Low-income people are traditionally undercounted,” Kopsky said. “We have the fastest growing Latino population in the country. Each of those communities requires its own outreach strategy. If you don’t do that to count those folks, they don’t get counted.”
The census is such a massive undertaking that as soon as the last one ended in 2010, planning began for 2020. Statisticians, technologists and marketers test questions and data gathering methods to ensure everything runs smoothly.
But some say the current census process is underfunded.
“We have a severe budget problem,” said Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a collaboration of business, labor, civil rights, state and local governments and child advocates. “The problem is, now you can’t make up ground. If they don’t step up to the plate for fiscal 2019, it will imperil the census.”
Census work received a boost in March, when, as part of a $1.3 trillion spending deal, Congress increased the U.S. Census Bureau’s budget to $2.8 billion, $1.1 billion more than the Trump administration wanted, according to an email shared by the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation.
Threat of an Undercount
Since the census is only conducted every 10 years, the negative impacts of inaccurate counts will linger, Sparks said.
“If the numbers are low in a particular community it means that for ten years, you’re going to have a substantial deficit in terms of the human needs and social costs,” he said. “It could cost a state and particular communities billions of dollars over the ten-year cycle.”
Already, the budget shortfall caused the Census Bureau to delay a sample survey by one year and to cancel two of three large-scale field tests – one in rural West Virginia and another suburban Washington state. This spring, Providence, R.I., is serving as the only testing ground for 2020 census methods, which will move from pencil and paper to online questions and answers.
Historically, the census tends to undercount rural populations, low-income communities, immigrants and communities of color – all of which are harder to reach. This time around, that problem may be heightened by the technological divide (lack of access to computers and the Internet may result in underreporting) and the citizenship-status question.
The citizenship question would be the only question that hasn’t been tested before being rolled out; already, 17 states and 7 cities have sued to block the question from being added, claiming that it’s unconstitutional. “Their experts say it’s a blatant political move,” Sparks said. The Trump administration has argued that the question is routine; however, it hasn’t been included in the decennial census since 1950.
Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas, is worried for Springdale’s growing Latino community.
“The services that the community is entitled to, we want to make sure the money for those programs is available,” she said.
In the 2010 census, one million children under age four were uncounted – 40 percent of whom were Latino, according to a report that looked at the issue.
“We were hoping this would finally be the census where we get at the dramatic undercount of this group,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which co-released the report. “There are some real serious hurdles placed in the path of getting a full and accurate count.”
Vargas said he’s also disappointed that the Census Bureau won’t hire legal immigrants as census takers as it has in the past. This time around, proof of citizenship is required to land the job.
“This is my fourth census, and I can honestly say this is the one census I am most worried [about],” he said. “We are going to have to determine, how do we ensure that all our communities are counted?”
Vargas said the impact of erasing groups of people from the census shouldn’t be underestimated.
“If there’s any effort to turn back the progress that communities of color have made in this country – to try to make them disappear – not counting them in the census would probably be the most effective way to do that.”
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning independent journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area, and author of the book “The Good News About Bad Behavior.” Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Fortune, Money, Mother Jones, The New York Times, and the Washington Post Magazine.