Worries persist despite additional billions for census

Concerns about potential undercounting remain among lawmakers from both parties, even with increased funding

Ranking member Rep. Robert Aderholt, D-Ala., conducts a House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on April 4, 2019. Aderhold said that while a new Census funding bill would put the bureau in “good shape,” he’s concerned the country may be facing a “trial run” for the new system that relies for the first time on online responses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House appropriators this week included a hefty boost for the 2020 census above the proposal from the Trump administration, but concerns about potential undercounting remain among lawmakers from both parties.

They fear that despite the additional money, the Commerce Department hasn’t adequately geared up for decennial population count. Democrats continue to oppose a controversial citizenship question they say will depress immigrant response, while some Republicans worry that the use of online questionnaires will lead to shortfalls in rural areas.

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The House Appropriations Committee approved $8.45 billion for the Census Bureau in its fiscal 2020 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill Wednesday, a total that is about 36 percent more than the nearly $6.2 billion the White House proposed earlier this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release its draft bill.

Administration officials have touted the planned census as the most comprehensive yet.

But the ranking member for the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., said that while the bill’s funding would put the Census Bureau in “good shape,” he’s concerned the country may be facing a “trial run” for the new system that relies for the first time on online responses.

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Aderholt said the administration may be underestimating the cost of reaching rural areas that have little internet access.

“I’m not saying I don’t think it will work, I just think that they have to make sure they don’t depend too much on just the internet and have to do a lot of followup visits in rural parts of the country,” Aderholt said.

Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant said undercounts in his suburban Dallas-Fort Worth district could have a major impact on school districts that have grown massively over the last 10 years. The new families moving in have tended to have larger families than the older ones they replace, he said, so any missed household due to the citizenship question or other reasons would be a major undercount.

Immigrant undercount concerns

The National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund on Wednesday released a report criticizing the inclusion of the citizenship question and other aspects of the rollout that they say may contribute to an undercount of Latinos nationwide. The group took the report’s recommendations to Congress, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, urging changes in the Census Bureau’s approach.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the co-chairman of the commission behind the report, argued the inclusion of the citizenship question “undermines the very purpose of the census,” by discouraging immigrant participation.

NALEO chief executive Arturo Vargas called the current situation a crisis at the report’s rollout, arguing that the census has been underfunded for years. He pointed out that the Census Bureau rolled back a planned end-to-end test of the census last year from three locations to one, in Rhode Island, that he said limited the usefulness of the test.

“All of us know the census is in trouble,” Vargas said.

The citizenship question, a challenge to which is currently before the Supreme Court, could also result in undercounting immigrants for states like Florida, according to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., argued at a Joint Economic Committee hearing Wednesday that the inclusion of the citizenship question could result in less representation for Hispanic and other communities from an undercount, effects that could also bleed into federal and business investment that depends on that data.

“Immigrant communities already skeptical of the federal government are reluctant to take part in a survey that they believe could be used against them, jeopardizing their status,” Maloney said.

Democrats in Congress have pushed for more oversight of the census process. The House Oversight and Reform Committee has requested information from the Commerce Department on the decision to add the citizenship question, and its Civil Rights Subcommittee Chairman Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said he’s seeking an oversight hearing next month.

The Census Bureau has pushed back on some of the criticisms, and in a Government Accountability Office report about the Rhode Island test said that it has taken steps to address problems that showed up there. At the NALEO event, James Christie, bureau assistant director for field operations, said that “the Census Bureau is ready to go” for the census, which kicks off early next year.

“We are on track, we are on schedule and we are within budget,” Christie said.

Christie argued the census’ online response option will make for the easiest census yet, allowing much of the country to fill out the questionnaire online with support for 12 languages. The bureau also plans to have translation guides for another 50 languages and as much as $500 million in outreach funds nationwide, compared to $350 million for the 2010 census.

Republicans have argued that concerns over the citizenship question may be overblown. At the JEC hearing, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., pointed to studies that have shown that general distrust of government may be a greater fragility in the census than nonresponses to the citizenship question.

“I know one is a political hot potato and it fits into the ‘us against them,’ but we may have a broader cultural issue to work through here,” Schweikert said.

The page for the fiscal 2020 draft House Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations measure is available on

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