An unprecedented and hasty move by the Trump administration to radically change the 2020 Census timetable has placed Florida at risk of a huge undercount and of losing tens of billions of dollars in its fair share of federal funding over the next decade as well as equitable representation in government.
Our elected officials should restore the Census timetable that has been in place since April; absent this restoration, the 2020 Census in Florida will be a catastrophe. We are part of a national collaborative of more than 1,300 philanthropies and nonprofits that are reaching out to our elected officials requesting their intervention to prevent a rushed and botched census.
This 2020 Census has made history in several alarming ways. It is being conducted during a pandemic that has sickened more than 500,000 people in Florida. As a result of the pandemic, the Census Bureau had to delay the opening of its offices; delay recruitment and training of staff; delay the start of non-response follow-up by Census takers; face a shortage of staff and scrap its community based Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program.
On April 13, Census Bureau and administration announced that because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the opening of bureau offices and other key milestones, the self-response and non-response follow-up period would be extended to Oct. 31, 2020. Further, the schedule for delivery of the Census data to the president was scheduled for April 30, 2021, in order to give the Census Bureau a critically needed six months to validate and analyze data accuracy before its delivery to the president.
These dates were clearly announced to the media, placed prominently on the Census Bureau website and were the basis for work plans developed by community-based organizations that play a key role in helping hard to count communities complete their Census. Suddenly and without warning on Aug. 3, the Bureau changed course and announced that data accumulation would conclude Sept. 30 and that delivery of the 2020 Census to the president would occur by Dec. 31. The decision to cut back the schedule contradicts comments made by Census officials who only weeks ago said unequivocally that they could not responsibly finish their work in time to complete the non-response follow-up operation and compile, analyze and disseminate apportionment data by the Dec. 31 deadline.
In addition to delaying Census Bureau operations, the pandemic prevented Census outreach and assistance programs by libraries, community organizations and local government agencies. As a result, as of today, the U.S. response rate of 63.1 percent is at a historical low, and Florida’s response rate of 60.1 percent is far below the weak national average and 32nd among the 50 states. Cutting short the 10-week time period for the crucial in person Census-takers to only 6 weeks will bring about a massive undercount of rural, Black and immigrant populations. These communities have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic; they account for more than 40 percent of Florida’s population and their undercount will unfairly deprive them of funding for roads, schools, health care, water quality, childcare, agriculture support, job training and more than 300 other federal programs.
As critically detrimental to the Aug. 3 announcement is the slashing of the data analysis process from six months to three months. Counting a US population that has grown 25 million since 2010 will be more challenging for data analysis, as 2020 is the first time that the Census has been conducted online, adding a third massive data set for the Bureau to validate. Much of the accuracy of the Census is dependent upon post-enumeration data cleaning and rushing this essential work will result in an unreliable final product.
There are few civic efforts that have longer term implications for the quality of our lives than the Census. We will have to endure the results of the 2020 Census, whether it is accurate or deeply flawed, for a full decade. In light of this unprecedented pandemic, it is imperative that the administration and the Census Bureau restore the original post-COVID dates for enumeration and data delivery to ensure census data integrity that will shape our communities for the next ten years. Let us make sure everyone is counted: our future and our children’s future depend on it.
Susan Racher is vice president and chief financial officer of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, one of the eight nonprofits spearheading Florida Counts Census 2020.