The Government Received More Incomplete Census Forms This Year Than A Decade Ago

Carolina Ortiz, a patient of AltaMed, works with Estuardo Ardon to fill out her census on July 10, 2020. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for things like health care programs, 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 U.S. Census Bureau collected more incomplete questionnaires from households this year compared to the 2010 Census, based on early reports from the agency. Specifically, respondents were less forthcoming on questions asking for their date of birth, sex, race and about Hispanic origin.

In a blog post published on the bureau website last week, Deputy Director Ron Jarmin acknowledged the unique challenges and imperfections of the 2020 Census.

"To the usual list of challenges were added the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, civil unrest, and a condensed schedule," Jarmin wrote.

But the problem of unfinished census forms doesn't strike Harvard University Public Policy Professor Maya Sen as unusual.

"People are on edge, anticipating the politicization of the census," Sen said. "I'm both not surprised, but I'm disappointed."

Sen saw something like this coming. Last year, she and three other Harvard researchers tested a census-like survey to see what impact a then-proposed question about U.S. citizenship could have on people's likelihood to finish all the other questions.

They found that asking about citizenship significantly increased other questions skipped.

"...we find that asking about U.S. citizenship significantly reduces the overall share of questions that respondents answer, with suggestive evidence that the effects are more pronounced among Hispanic respondents. We also find that the citizenship question significantly reduces the number of household members reported as being Hispanic. These patterns are particularly stark among Hispanics who report being born in Mexico or Central America."

The Harvard study estimates that six million Latinos could have been missed had the bureau added a citizenship question to the census form. The researchers found Latinos were less inclined to participate in the 2020 Census and worried their answers could be used against them or shared with other government agencies.

Ultimately, the 2020 Census did not ask about citizenship, in spite of the Trump administration's attempt to add such a question.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a proposed citizenship question last year, ruling that the government's argument to include it was arbitrary and capricious. Chief justice John Roberts called the Trump Administration's rationale a pretext, and for the court to believe it, they would require, "a naivete from which ordinary citizens are free."

But Harvard professor Sen believes the damage might've already been done.

"It sounds like what the census is finding is some kind of residual effect of maybe the debate of including a citizenship question," Sen said. "People were kind of approaching the census skeptically and with some distrust."

Sen is hoping to see which populations were most likely to return an unfinished census form to figure out whether this trend matches the findings from her research. At this point though, the government hasn't released that kind of detailed data.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) expects that hard-to-count communities, including Latinos, are the most likely to be missed.

"L.A. has a much higher proportion of its population that falls within hard-to-count communities. So yes, it could have a bigger impact here," Saenz said.

In that case, he says, some Latinos could lose political representation or federal funding for services in their communities, like public schools and healthcare.

The Census Bureau will try to fill in the missing information with other government records. In a post on the agency's website, Deputy Director Rob Jarmin wrote, "the Census Bureau has well-established procedures for coping with missing items on the decennial census and its other surveys."

At the urging of the Trump Administration, bureau officials only have until the end of this calendar year to finish filling in the blanks. An earlier plan drafted by the agency would've extended that work until April 2021.

MALDEF, along with the city and county of Los Angeles, are fighting in separate lawsuits to restore that timeline.

"When you have more challenges as existed in 2020, the bureau needs more time to process the data," Saenz said.

Saenz is hopeful that if given the chance, a Biden Administration could extend the bureau's schedule into next spring and work to depoliticize future counts.

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