The Census Is Ending. What Does The Claim That 99.9% Of Households Were Counted Really Mean?

Census tracts that are considered "hard-to-count" are represented in dark red. (Courtesy of California Complete Count Census Office)

What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for services like health care, public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.


The 2020 Census is set to end today, after a months-long legal battle over the end date for the decennial count. So if you've been putting off filling out the census form, there are now basically hours left to do it — over the internet, phone or by mail.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced the Oct. 15 deadline on Tuesday, following a Supreme Court decision that let the government wind down the count sooner than the Oct. 31 date ordered by a lower court.

Internet self-response is now set to end tonight at 11:59 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (2:59 a.m. Oct. 16 in Los Angeles), according to the Census Bureau. Paper forms must postmarked by Oct. 15; phone responses and door-knocking are also set to go through the end of today.

According to the bureau, most U.S. households have already been counted. The government issued a press release claiming a 99.9% completion rate across the country.

But that's not the whole story.

To begin with, "completion" in census terms doesn't necessarily mean someone responded to the count.

"The 99 percent is kinda misleading," former Census Bureau Director John Thompson told LAist. "A high completion rate doesn't mean a whole lot in terms of coverage."

Census takers don't need to make contact with every single household to call their work complete, Thompson explained. They're allowed to take shortcuts.

For example, if a census door-knocker can't reach a specific resident, they can ask their neighbors to answer for them instead. This is called counting by proxy.

Or, sometimes a resident may not fully complete a census questionnaire. The census taker might just observe their house to estimate the residents — a good guess, basically. That's called taking a pop count.

Thompson, who left the bureau in 2017, said the government may have been relying on these less accurate work-arounds more often to meet the early deadlines set by the Trump administration.

Census takers working in the Pasadena Area Census Office have supported those concerns.

Census worker Nicholas Hua wrote to LAist recently to say that census takers were being told to guess the number of residents at a household, or, encouraged to close cases with no response.

"I received reports from several alarmed enumerators who said they were told to just close it out by marking respondents 'refused,' but one of my enumerators said that he didn't go to the address yet, and cannot just mark 'refused' without trying," Hua said via email. " We were flabbergasted."

The potential flaws in the data are obscured by generalized completion rates, Thompson said. He recently authored a report calling for the Census Bureau to release specific indicators to prove the quality of their work.

So far the Bureau hasn't done that. The agency also won't release census responses on the individual tract level, which could show how successful census enumerators were in neighborhoods with low rates of self-response.

Without that information, it's difficult to know if some neighborhoods in Los Angeles have higher completion rates than others.

LAist has requested the data from the Census Bureau and received this response:

"Tract level data while the census is on-going has never been released. Those figures are made available when final results are published," Census spokesperson Patricia Ramos wrote in an email.

Census offices in Los Angeles County also say they've completed 99.9% of their work, but local census advocates are worried about an undercount that could lead to a loss of critical public services and political representation. L.A. County is considered one of the hardest-to-count regions in the U.S.

Despite the government's announcements about "99.9%" completion, census advocate Cynthia Cortez doubts that every Angeleno has been counted. She organizes census outreach for SELA Collaborative, a local nonprofit serving Southeast L.A. and a partner organization of the We Count LA census campaign including over one hundred other community groups. She's frustrated that the census is now set to end this week.

"A lot of people are not included in the census," Cortez said. "This moves us away from the fundamental mission of the census: It's to count every single person in our country."

The area that Cortez serves is among those considered very hard to count. In some census tracts, less than half of households filled out the form on their own. Her group was planning car caravans and other community events to help boost response rates, but those are now being cancelled.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer is also disappointed with the Census Bureau's decision and believes the final data will be inaccurate — and potentially result in an undercount of local communities of color.

The city and county of L.A. were two plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration's shortened timeline, the same case that made it to the Supreme Court.

"We should be going back to locations where we otherwise have to guess and take one more shot at getting the accurate information at that door," Feuer said. "This is what we were fighting for throughout."

The city and other plaintiffs filed suit against the administration in August, after federal officials abruptly announced they were moving up the completion date from Oct. 31, as had been planned, to Sept. 30. A federal judge in San Jose recently extended the census deadline once more, but the Supreme Court's decision this week undid that.

Still, Feuer said the city isn't finished fighting the Trump administration's plans. The case is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, and is being heard in a lower district court, where a judge could still issue a last-minute ruling calling the Census Bureau's decisions unlawful.

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