Census misses create worries of Hispanic undercount

The census has historically missed portions of Hispanic communities, shortchanging them on representation and federal program funds

Protesters hold signs at a June 2019 rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Protesters hold signs at a June 2019 rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 29, 2021 at 10:18am

Joseph Garcia spent months working to ensure that Hispanic residents of Arizona got counted in last year’s decennial census. After this week’s release of the first set of results, he worries the government still missed thousands of them.

Arizona, along with Texas and Florida — other states with large Hispanic populations — fell short of expectations in Monday’s reveal of census data, resulting in smaller gains in congressional seats than projected, or none at all. Historically, the census has missed portions of Hispanic communities, shortchanging them on representation and in millions of dollars in federal programs, said Garcia, executive director of the advocacy group Chicanos por la Causa Action Fund.

“I just don’t want everyone to focus on ‘Oh, we didn't get another congressional seat’; the harm is much deeper than that,” Garcia said. “It’s compounding because it's going to be year after year after year over the next decade of less funding for all these services, which are really needed by many people.”

In addition to apportionment, census results are used to draw legislative maps and help guide more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending every year. However, it’s uncertain at this point how many people the census process may have missed.

During Monday's reveal of the results, Census Bureau officials cautioned the apportionment totals did not include any demographic information. Additionally, they pointed out the population for states such as Texas and Florida came within 1 percent of the projections it previously made.   

Multiple experts said it could be months before the public gets a better picture of the accuracy of the 2020 census. Detailed redistricting information that will include race and ethnicity data is slated for release over the summer.

Even the Census Bureau itself doesn’t know at the moment — much of the accuracy assessment for the count is based on a post-count survey the agency will complete by next year. 

In 2010, the Census Bureau’s post-enumeration survey indicated the agency may have undercounted the Hispanic population by as much as 1.5 percent nationwide.

Tom Wolf, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said assessing potential undercounts is “really a story that is going to be compiled over the next year.”

However, he pointed out there are “all sorts of factors that would trend toward decreasing the quality and equity of the count” that could show up in later data releases.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki referred questions about a potential undercount of the Hispanic population to the Census Bureau during a news briefing Tuesday. She noted, though, the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment data and gave the agency extra time to finish the census results.

Redistricting expert Kim Brace said Monday’s population results revealed the potential for a significant undercount of the Hispanic population nationwide. It will take more data to know for sure, he said, but if there are undercounts, it will make it harder to draw fair congressional and legislative seats in the coming months.

“My gut tells me" that Hispanics who "got turned off by the Trump administration's actions and the citizenship issue probably did not participate in the census. That doesn't bode well for redistricting,” Brace said.

Potential for undercounts

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund, found it “surprising” that states with large Hispanic communities fell short of projections.

“Once more details are released, we will be able to better determine to what extent the Latino population was fairly and accurately counted,” Vargas said in a statement.

Still, half of the 10 states with the highest Hispanic populations — California, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York — beat the Census Bureau’s earlier estimates of their population growth. 

All five had significant statewide efforts to boost census participation, including a campaign of more than $180 million funded by California, which still lost a congressional seat. Vargas’ statement noted those efforts may have made a difference in beating estimates, however. 

The other five states with large Hispanic communities — Texas, Nevada, Florida, Arizona and Colorado —  all came in under Census Bureau projections. Arizona had the largest miss in the country, with its population count coming in more than 3 percent below the Census Bureau estimate.

Vargas had previously criticized the Trump administration for its failed attempt to include a citizenship question on the census and for attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment process. Before the actual headcount started, his organization released multiple surveys that found more noncitizen and undocumented immigrant respondents saying they would not respond to the census than the general public.

As many as three-quarters of respondents in those surveys expressed concerned about what the Trump administration would do with census responses. Those concerns also surfaced in multiple lawsuits over the Trump administration’s actions and amid congressional oversight efforts.

Federal law prevents the disclosure of census responses, and Census Bureau advertisements and outreach materials included that fact.

However, the pandemic complicated in-person outreach and efforts to convince people to respond on their own by mail or online, Garcia said.

He and other advocates had to pivot plans to convince people to respond in person to census door-knockers trying to find residents who failed to respond on their own. That added to the difficulty of convincing people frightened by the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the process, Garcia said.

“It was a perfect storm, and I think it should be pointed out that Donald Trump artificially seeded the clouds on that perfect storm,” Garcia said.