Census Bureau Tightens its Counting Timeline, Endangering the Accuracy of 2020 Census

Published Sep 29, 2020

What happened: In July, the Census Bureau, under pressure from administration officials, was forced to shorten its 2020 counting efforts by a full month. In an internal analysis, Census Bureau staff warned that the truncated timeline would hamper thorough data collection and analysis and potentially “reduce [the] accuracy” of the census. In late September, a federal judge ruled against the shortened deadline and ordered the head count to continue through October. Despite the ruling, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the count would end on October 5.

Why it matters: The census is critical—not only to the federal government, but to states, communities, scientists, businesses, school districts, and more. Census data must be accurate and complete. By directing the Bureau to compress its census timeline, the administration threatens the accuracy of 2020 census data and, as a result, their use in equitable federal decisionmaking for a decade or more.

After senior Department of Commerce (DOC) officials pressed the Census Bureau to accelerate its timeline for the census, the Bureau announced that it would shorten its data collection period by a month. An internal analysis by census staff warned that the shorter timeline could cause “serious errors” and “reduce accuracy.” Census results are a vital resource; by cutting short the count, the Bureau could diminish the quality of census data and adversely impact scientific research, political representation, and equitable use of federal resources for a decade. Moreover, because people of color are more likely to be undercounted, an inaccurate census could hurt communities of color most, depriving them of fair representation in government, economic data on which businesses depend, and an equitable distribution of federal resources.

Nearly 330 million people call the United States home, and this year, the government is tasked with counting all of them. The census only happens once a decade, but it requires years of planning, hundreds of thousands of census takers, and months of data collection and analysis.

This work is indispensable for several reasons. First, census data determine political representation. The more people in a state, the more representatives that state gets in the House. State officials also use the data to redraw the boundaries of voting districts, called redistricting. Second, census data helps the federal government allocate money fairly to states and communities for a decade. Data from the 2020 census will determine how $1.5 trillion are distributed across federal programs like low-income housing tax credits, school lunch programs, rural health initiatives, and infrastructure grants. Third, the census guides science and business alike. These data underpin much of the nation’s social science research, and census-derived data, like labor statistics, inform business decisions.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on census operations. The novel coronavirus reached US shores in January, and by March, the Census Bureau had suspended its field operations to keep census workers and the public safe. In April, Bureau officials—realizing it would be impossible to deliver census results to the president by the legal deadline, December 31—made an urgent plea to Congress for “120 additional calendar days.” The extension would bump the counting deadline from July 31 to October 31 and the final deadline from December 31 to April 31. Bureau leaders were told that Congress and the DOC would back the extension. The president, too, expressed support during a press briefing.

But in an abrupt reversal on July 29, a senior DOC official instructed the Bureau to create a plan to meet the original deadline, December 31. Bureau staff were kept in the dark about this decision and given only five days to prepare a new plan to present to the DOC Secretary. To meet the December deadline, the Bureau realized it would have to cut short its door-knocking efforts by a full month, moving the end date from October 31 to September 30.

A month later, a leaked analysis revealed that Census staff were deeply alarmed about the truncated timeline. The analysis, a presentation deck dated August 3, warned that the shortened schedule would increase the risk of serious errors that “may not be fixed – due to lack of time to research and understand the root cause or to re-run and re-review one or multiple state files.” The analysis also found that the “highly compressed schedule” could “reduce accuracy” and prompt “vocal objections” from states. The DOC’s Office of the Inspector General later published a report confirming that the decision to accelerate the schedule came not from the Census Bureau, but rather, from outside officials.

In late September, a federal judge ruled against the shortened deadline, noting that it would likely produce inaccurate census results. She ordered the head count to continue through the end of October to ensure accuracy. Only a few days later, however, the DOC Secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced that the census count would end on October 5—nearly a month earlier than the judge’s order required.

This represents a serious attack on the Census Bureau’s ability to gather and analyze critical census data, and inaccurate data could be catastrophic. For researchers, census data help create benchmarks in biomedical science, aid cancer registries, reveal health trends across populations, help scientists assess the impacts of environmental factors (for example, toxic waste and water scarcity) on different communities, and underpin studies in the social sciences.

For communities, census data help businesses decide where and how to expand, and they ensure that cities and towns get funding to build roads, hospitals, and bridges. They are crucial to schools’ ability to educate and feed children. Without accurate census data, the public’s fundamental right to be represented in Congress could be imperiled.

Worse, the risk of being undercounted is far greater for some. Low-income individuals, people of color, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous people, and children (especially Black and Latino children) are among the least likely to be counted accurately, an inequity that could be exacerbated by the pandemic. The Bureau’s tightened schedule means less time for “door-knocking,” when census workers go door-to-door to reach hard-to-count households. Door-knocking is vital to ensuring that historically undercounted groups are included. If people from underserved communities are missing from census data, their states and communities could lose funding for critical public services, like health care and school nutrition programs. They could even lose representation in Congress.

The census reaches every corner of life in the US. By shortening the Census Bureau’s timeline for collecting and analyzing census data, the administration undermines the Bureau’s ability to provide accurate data—and in so doing, undermines the government’s ability to make equitable, evidence-based decisions for the public good.