Southern states have lagged behind the rest of the country in census counting amid the pandemic — and now a historic hurricane season may hamper last-ditch efforts to finish in a shortened timeline, census experts warned Thursday.
The Census Bureau has counted about 93 percent of households nationwide, but a handful of Southern states have as little as 85 percent of households counted heading into a Sept. 30 deadline to wrap up. Flubbing the count there could shift the distribution of congressional seats as well as federal spending for major programs like Medicaid, according to a study released Thursday.
The Census Bureau's associate director for the decennial census, Al Fontenot, acknowledged the risk during a Census Scientific Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday. The agency had trouble getting operations up to speed in several Southern states because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, and enumerators have already shifted some counting to temporary shelters for people displaced this week by Hurricane Sally.
“I really can't project whether Mother Nature's going to let us finish. We're going to do the best we can and see where we end up,” Fontenot said.
Census results are used to divvy up 435 House seats and guide $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.
Florida already stands to lose out on gaining a second congressional seat because of a shortened census deadline that may result in missing some residents, according to a study released Thursday from the Office of Science Policy at the American Statistical Association. Florida, as well as other Gulf Coast states like Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, also stand to lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funding, according to the study. Those findings hold true even when assuming the current count will be more accurate than in 2010, the study said.
“While other scenarios could produce a different set of winners and losers, our findings suggest that apportionment and funding would still benefit from a deadline extension,” the study’s authors wrote.
The study solely looked at the Census Bureau’s completion rate by state and was conducted before Hurricane Sally tore through Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Those states also stand in the path of a potential tropical storm now forming off the coast of Mexico.
The Census Bureau has plans to deal with the problems caused by natural disasters, but little time remains before the in-person count wraps up on Sept. 30.
Originally, because of months of delay due to the pandemic, the Census Bureau sought to extend its statutory deadline to hand over census apportionment results to the White House from Dec. 31 to the end of April. That would have given the agency another month to continue counting, through Oct. 31. The House passed that extension as part of a larger pandemic relief bill; however, negotiations over relief funds dragged on for months.
Then, President Donald Trump launched an effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment data and the administration dropped its request for the deadline extension. That effort was blocked last week by a federal judicial panel in New York, but the Justice Department said it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Senate has not acted on an extension, although members from both parties have pushed for a bill. Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, introduced a bill to extend the deadline on Tuesday.
However, the administration has resisted the extension, calling it a “poison pill” in talks to keep the government open through the end of the fiscal year.