The census came to an abrupt halt Thursday after a pandemic and a legal tug-of-war threw the massive survey into chaos. Officials around the country now fear they’ll lose their fair share of federal funding and political representation due to an incomplete count.
A George Washington University study indicates that a mere 1 percent undercount for Texas by the U.S. Census Bureau would amount to $290 million less per year in federal revenue. A lower-than-anticipated count in urban areas could also mean one or two less congressional seats and fewer electoral votes for the state, as well as a smaller share of free lunches, Medicaid and HUD dollars.
Houston is among a handful of gateway cities with growing immigrant populations that are most vulnerable to being undercounted, said Lloyd Potter, the state demographer for Texas. Low-income people, children, renters, people of color and immigrants are among the least counted; their communities then are underrepresented in government and must make do with less funding.
One in four Texans — more than 6 million people — live in hard-to-count communities, according to a 2019 report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonpartisan organization. This demographic group includes people who may be difficult to contact, due to language barriers, or to locate, due to informal housing arrangements, or engage, due to fear.
By most estimates, Texas is on track to gain three congressional seats — more than any other state, said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist specializing in Texas and U.S. electoral politics. But, it there is a significant undercount and the Trump administration excludes undocumented people, two of those new seats could be lost.
With the pandemic curtailing outreach and enumeration efforts and the stop-and-start of multiple deadlines, Potter, the state demographer, said, census workers have become worried about the repercussions of trying to tabulate the data on a drastically shortened timeline. “This is is just not like anything we ever would have expected.”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is among an array of local officials who have encouraged people all year to respond to the census, but the pandemic and confusion over deadlines hampered many efforts at outreach.
“I think it’s vital we recognize we’re in a dire condition,” Jackson Lee during a last-minute plea outside the student-free Blackshear Elementary campus on Thursday morning.
“It’s such a huge logistical problem counting every person in the country and to have all these problems thrown in the spokes, it’s been very difficult,” said Potter, the state demographer, who also runs the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconoic Research at University of Texas San Antonio. “This particular year there is a perfect storm of challenges for an undercount.”
Others who study the census agreed, saying it could yield surprisingly low totals.
“This is going to be the most problem-plagued census in modern times,” said Murray, the political scientist. On the front end, there was the obstacle of people who didn’t want to open their doors to enumerators amid a public health crisis. The next major obstacle is that once the data is collected, he said, we’re facing “a rogue political administration that’s unprecedentedly messing with the census to try to get it to give their party more power going forward.”
And there’s this.
The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will review President Donald Trump’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants when calculating how congressional seats are apportioned among the states.
The unprecedented proposal could have the effect of shifting both political power and billions of dollars in federal funds away from urban states with large immigrant populations and toward rural and more Republican interests.
A three-judge panel in New York said Trump’s July 21 memorandum on the matter was “an unlawful exercise of the authority granted to” him by Congress. It blocked the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau from including information about the number of undocumented immigrants — it is unclear how those numbers would be generated — in their reports to the president after this year’s census is completed.
The justices put the case on a fast track and said they will hold a hearing Nov. 30. By then, it probably will be a nine-member court again, if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, giving the court a 6-to-3 conservative majority. The administration says timing matters because it must present the plan to Congress in January.
It is unclear whether the matter would divide the court along ideological lines, but the issue is another mark of how the once-a-decade census has been transformed from a largely bureaucratic exercise into the centerpiece of a partisan battle.
I don’t actually expect any of our state leaders to care about the loss of federal funds, because those funds just go to programs that help people, which they don’t like. I am a little surprised that they might sit back passively as the state could lose one or two Congressional seats, since that represents power. With every passing day, I am more convinced that President Biden should just say that the Census was hopelessly botched by the Trump administration, and that the data they collected is worse than useless, so we have to do it again. I see no other just and equitable path forward.