The next census is less than two years away now and it’s clearly going to turn into yet another battlefield in the culture wars. We’ve already heard the complaints about the citizenship question which is being expanded to all of the forms (instead of just the long form as was previously done). But now there’s yet another problem to address. Bradford M. Berry, general counsel for the NAACP writing at the Washington Post, raises the question of whether or not the census is adequately funded. And if it’s not, he claims that errors in the final count will disproportionately impact communities of color.
With fewer than two years to go before the count, the U.S. Census Bureau is alarmingly understaffed, underfunded and underprepared for its constitutionally mandated population survey. That’s why the NAACP is suing the federal government to demand that it immediately step up its preparations, especially with respect to communities of color.
Our case rests on a simple premise: An inaccurate and racially biased census does not meet constitutional requirements. Unless a court intervenes, the census will become yet another tool of voter suppression against communities of color — the same communities that are often targeted by state legislatures determined to depress African American and Latino voter participation.
Last year, the NAACP engaged the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School on strategies to ensure the integrity of the census. We quickly realized the hard road ahead, given that the Census Bureau was severely underfunded and understaffed during critical stages of preparations.
So the basis for the NAACP lawsuit is the claim that the program is severely underfunded for 2020 and that a significantly inaccurate census will produce a negative impact felt disproportionately by minority communities. I’m reminded yet again that the main problem with calling everything racist is that you’re more likely to miss it when something truly unequal in racial terms comes along. In this case, while it seems rather strange to launch a lawsuit over a budget shortfall, Berry may indeed have a point.
This doesn’t sound like a case of intentional racism, but based on the results of previous census totals, the net effect may indeed be what the author describes. An audit of the 2010 census revealed that the tally failed to count 1.5 million black and Hispanic citizens. At the same time, the total figures that year produced a net overcount of 36,000 people. The overage, while again not intentionally racially biased, was found to be composed of people who owned multiple homes which were all surveyed and those people were primarily white.
The funding cuts to the Census Bureau were hardly the work of secretive, evil actors, but rather part of budget cuts across the board in an effort to curb spending. Those cuts have allegedly led to the cancellation of training sessions and “dress rehearsals” for census workers, potentially making the 2020 process even more prone to errors. The question is, what to do about it? If every agency receiving less money in a tight budget season was sued for having insufficient money we would probably need to just close down the entire government to deal with all the court cases.
The real challenge as I see it is to figure out why the census seems to consistently come up short in minority communities as opposed to less racially diverse areas. As the author points out, the most undercounted area in the country in 2010 was Prince George’s County, Maryland, a “majority-minority” region. Why? While I can’t even offer a likely answer to the question, we need to figure out what the challenges are for census workers in minority communities causing them to miss citizens at a higher rate. Rather than suing the government to throw more money at the problem, perhaps addressing that very specific question and altering the census training program to address the issue would be the way to go.