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America must all be counted: A call for proper federal funding for the 2020 U.S. Census


America must all be counted: A call for proper federal funding for the 2020 U.S. Census (liveslow/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Every 10 years, our nation undertakes its largest civilian mobilization effort — the census. With less than eight months until 2020 Census Day, it’s time for the federal government to do everything in its power to ensure that every person living in the United States is counted. To make sure that happens, we must provide substantial funding for the Census Bureau to expand its capacity to conduct a thorough, accurate count while addressing vulnerabilities and potential pitfalls.

The stakes could not be higher. Data from the 2020 decennial census will determine the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state will have for the next decade. Census numbers also influence how the federal government allocates an estimated $880 billion in federal funding to states and local communities for schools, infrastructure, health care and other public services.

Take New York, for example. In fiscal year 2016, New York received more than $73 billion through 55 federal programs guided by data derived from the 2010 census. This funding supported investments in early childhood education, Pell Grants, public housing, health care and emergency preparedness.

One particular challenge is ensuring an accurate count for those in our hard-to-count communities. New York is a diverse state with many populations that are frequently undercounted, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Latinos, foreign-born residents, renters, young children and rural communities.

Underfunding the census puts New York communities most in need of federal funding at risk of losing tens of billions of dollars, because, as The Washington Post explains, “An undercount changes the distribution of funds, not the amount of funds, creating winners and losers among states.”

Well-aware of that, the Trump administration tried to use the count as an instrument for its own cynical political ends by adding a citizenship question to the census form. But even after the Supreme Court ruled against the inclusion of the administration’s citizenship question — which could have resulted in an undercount of an estimated 9 million, mostly Hispanic, U.S. residents — significant problems remain, including rebuilding trust in the confidentiality of the census among the immigrant communities affected by this administration’s policies.

Since 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has included the 2020 census on its list of “high risk” projects. And since 2007, GAO has identified more than 100 issues the Census Bureau needed to address for an accurate count. While the bureau has met some of these recommendations, challenges persist, including filling vacancies for important positions.

The Census is also offering households the option to fill out their census form online, which creates other risks. The modernization of a nation-wide operation and implementation of new IT systems without sufficient testing raises the possibility of connectivity failures, disinformation campaigns and cyber threats. Moreover, there remain serious concerns that the ongoing digital divide will contribute to an undercount of already marginalized communities.

We lack a clear understanding of the bureau’s mitigation plans should issues arise.

Given these challenges, we must do everything we can to ensure a fair and accurate census count. And we can’t get an accurate count without adequate funding. As members of the House Appropriations Committee, that’s exactly what we’re fighting to provide.

In June, we passed through the House of Representatives appropriations legislation for the upcoming fiscal year that provides $8.45 billion for the Census Bureau. It includes a strong increase to enable the bureau to conduct a thorough and accurate count of all persons, as required by the Constitution. This funding — a $4.6 billion increase over last year — would enable the bureau to conduct the largest and most technologically advanced decennial census in its history, with more resources for responsible project management and strong cybersecurity protection.

The census occurs once every 10 years, meaning we have only one opportunity to make sure it is adequately implemented. We can’t afford to lose our chance to get it right.

Lowey is a Democrat representing Westchester and Rockland County in the U.S. House and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. Serrano is a House Democrat representing parts of Bronx. Meng is a House Democrat representing parts of Queens.