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Citizenship Question Or No Citizenship Question, The 2020 Census Has Some Big Problems

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Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court hears oral arguments in the Commerce vs. New York case April 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. The case highlights a question about U.S. citizenship included by the Trump administration in the proposed 2020 U.S. census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

UPDATE July 4:

After initially saying they would send the 2020 Census forms to the printers without the hotly-contested citizenship question, the Trump Administration reversed course Wednesday. First word that they were still pursuing the question came from a tweet from the president:

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So there remains the possibility the question will appear. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to invalidate a decision by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add the question, but left the door open for the administration to try again with valid rationale.

Now we await this Friday ruling. The imminent possibility of having to list whether you're a U.S. citizen alongside other personal information has been a hot-button issue that has rattled many in the immigrant community and beyond, especially on the heels of President Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy and crackdowns on illegal border crossings.

However, even without the privacy issues and other concerns raised by the citizenship question, next year's Census was bound to be especially challenging with a litany of barriers to overcome. Here is a rundown of holdups.


Los Angeles County's diversity as a whole -- in terms of size, culture and people -- makes it the hardest-to-count county in California.

There are 42 states with fewer people than L.A. county, said James Christy, assistant director for field operations with the Census Bureau.

An increasingly diverse populace poses complicated logistical challenges. Online census materials (and phone questionnaire interviews) will be available in 13 languages and other informational guides (not the census form) will be available in 59 languages. That might sound like a lot, but, in terms of L.A.'s rich linguistic diversity, it's only a drop in the bucket. There are over 200 languages spoken in L.A. County, according to the 2013-17 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.

Language is just the beginning of why L.A. is so difficult to count. There's also the high number -- in most cases, more than the statewide average -- of:

  • Renters
  • Foreign-born residents
  • So-called "crowded households" with more than 1.5 persons per room
  • The homeless and poor
  • Ethnic and racial minorities like blacks, Latinos and Native Americans
  • Young children age 0-5

These groups (and more) are all considered extremely difficult to count and are at high-risk of being undercounted.

The Low Response Score (LRS) is a metric created by the Census Bureau to locate, predict, and manage hard-to-count populations. According to estimates, there were almost 3.9 million people in L.A. County living in census tracts with an LRS of 28 or above, the most of any U.S. county and more than twice as many people as the second-most vulnerable county, Illinois' Cook County, home to Chicago.

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In L.A. County, nearly 3.3. million occupied housing units are rented, the second-highest rate in California (behind San Francisco).

Statewide: 45.5%
L.A. County: 54.1%

Crowded households

Almost 5% of occupied L.A. County's occupied housing units average more than 1.5 occupants per room, trailing only Monterey.

Statewide: 2.8%
L.A. County: 4.8%


L.A. County ranks fourth in the state for foreign-born residents with almost 3.5 million people born outside the U.S. living here.

Statewide: 27%
L.A. County: 34.4%


L.A. County ranks 26th in the state for the number of residents who live below 150% of the national poverty level, which was about $38,000 for a family of four in California in 2018.

Statewide: 24.7%
L.A. County: 28.1%

Limited-English households

Almost 436,000 households have limited-English proficiency, the third-highest in the state.

Statewide: 9.2%
L.A. County: 13.2%

Children under 5

There are more than 631,000 children under age 5 in L.A. County, the most young children of any county in the state.

Statewide: 6.4%
L.A. County: 6.3%

Apartment buildings*

With a high concentration of renters, L.A. County has a high volume of apartment buildings.

Statewide: 28.6%
L.A. County: 40%

*housing units with three or more units in a multi-unit structure

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau 2018 Planning Database, 2013-17 American Community Survey 5-year estimates


With so many hard-to-count populations here in L.A., what happens if they're not all properly counted?

"There are definitely some complexities as to what an undercount really means, but an undercount is a disaster," said USC Annenberg Innovation Lab executive director and professor Colin Maclay.

According to a 2018 George Washington University research report estimating the fiscal effects of an undercount:

"The more accurate a state's census count, the more equitable is its share of federal funds. A substantial undercount in any one state could lead to the diversion of funds away from that state to other states and uses."

For Californians, especially Angelenos, an undercount would mean the loss of valuable federal funding toward programs like Medicaid (Medi-Cal), Section 8 housing and Title I education grants for low-income students.

How much funding California could stand to lose? Frankly, it depends on who you ask. Undercounts have happened before, most recently in 1990, 2000 and 2010. Some sources base their estimates for a 2020 undercount's effects on L.A. County on the scope of 2010's undercount. About 1.5 million Californians weren't counted in 2010, each costing the state about $1,000 each in funding dollars. But a December 2018 report released by the California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), however, disputes claims that California could see anywhere near this scale of loss in federal funding:

"Even in (a) worst-case scenario (similar to what happened in 1990)...we find that an undercount could result in the California state government losing tens of millions of dollars -- not billions of dollars -- in federal funding. In budgetary terms, this amount of money is very small. (Federal funds distributed directly to local governments also could be affected, but the size of this effect is unknown.)"

2020 Census. Potential Impacts on California. (California Legislative Analyst's Office)

While it's still in Californians' self-interest to ensure an accurate 2020 Census count, there are some ways an undercount would be mitigated here.

After the undercount in 1990, the LAO reported that California lost more than $200 million in federal funds in fiscal year 1990-91. Keep in mind that the state still received roughly $25 billion in federal funds that same year. So the loss of funds represents slightly less than 1% of the total.

But $200 million is still a lot of money. A loss this costly would be unlikely to happen again in 2020 even if an undercount were as large. Here's why:

A substantial amount of federal funding (about $50 billion, or 53.8% in 2016-17) is allocated to the state without reference to population estimates. That means it would be unaffected by an undercount in 2020. Sometimes these funds are distributed according to fixed levels defined in federal rules or based on performance or cost-sharing. For example, when California faces a natural disaster like deadly wildfires, the federal government provides hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in emergency aid based on the costs of response efforts, not the state's population.

The remainder in federal funding are based on formulas that take population estimates into account, among many other factors, like age and income. Although these programs have federal funding formulas that factor in population, nearly all of this funding would not be affected by an undercount in the 2020 Census.

2020 Census. Potential Impacts on California. (California Legislative Analyst's Office)


Beyond the money is the power. One of the key uses of census data is redistricting.

"As far as I know, we're the only country in the world that ties political representation to a census, which is completely unique," said Maclay.

While most of the media attention has centered around California's potential loss of a congressional seat in an undercount, the LAO explains that the odds of this are slim. What's more troubling, the LAO says, is the potential for a misallocation of representation within the state:

"If some regions within the state are undercounted relative to others, they could end up with less congressional (and state legislative) representation relative to what they should receive."


Another hurdle for this census is the transition to digital. For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will invite most Americans to respond to the census online. About 80% of households will receive an invitation to participate digitally and the remainder will still receive paper forms in the mail (you can also complete the census via phone).

The digitization of the census is projected to save $5.2 billion over the 2010 Census, the most costly since the census count began under constitutional mandate in 1790. But despite the best of intentions, said Maclay, the 2020 Census has faced serious fiscal challenges.

Let's take them one at a time:

First, the budget for the 2020 Census was capped at the total cost of the 2010 Census. Since then, Maclay points out that the U.S. has added an estimated 30 million more people, meaning that many more people to count.And then there's inflation, which makes those available dollars less valuable than they were a decade ago.

"You shouldn't be budgeting for 2010," Maclay said,"You should be budgeting on what you need to get census done."

Secondly, the funding that was approved came late.

And then there are the realities of federal government. Maclay, who examines the intersection of census, media and information, and technology, said the government has a harder time developing new technology because of the bureaucratic red tape that can choke and stall procurement processes.

Perhaps the most pronounced challenge for the 2020 Census is change itself. This census will be administered differently than any other -- primarily online -- and in a technological landscape that is very different than 2010. It's a massive change that Maclay said is coming with mostly just the Census Bureau actively working on it.


While being able to fill out the census on your computer or smartphone has its advantages, it's only a benefit if you have internet. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 37% of Americans don't have a broadband internet connection at home and about 20% don't internet access on their phones.

L.A. County home broadband adoption rates by Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) in 2015. (USC)

In South Los Angeles, only about half of the residents reported having a broadband connection at home in a 2017 USC study of internet connectivity in L.A. County. The digital divide is only exacerbated by poverty. Limited or no access to internet and/or a computer is more likely if you're poor. You're also more likely to be technologically illiterate. The study also outlined a significant racial gap between whites and minorities in terms of access to internet and computer ownership.

This is especially troubling considering South L.A. census tracts have some of the highest concentrations of historically hard-to-count populations.


"(The Census Bureau) is parachuting into a very new world trying to convince 140 million households to participate," said Maclay.

And, he said, it comes after 2016's "wake-up call for privacy and security" following Russian interference in the last presidential election.

"The good news is that...the national consensus is that data must be's integrity must be protected, and (data) must be protected physically," said Maclay. Title 13 of the U.S. Code guarantees protections for census data's use and the privacy of those who participate.

iIs the Census Bureau ready to stand up against a potential cyber threat? Such a threat could endanger the integrity of the data collected or privacy of those who participate.

In 2017, the upcoming census was added to the federal Government Accountability Office's (GAO) list of high-risk government programs. That's because of concerns about the IT infrastructure and security of what's known as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which tracks back to the census respondents. The GAO made 97 recommendations to improve cybersecurity of the 2020 Census. As of April, 72 had been implemented.


California has spent $2.47 per capita on 2020 Census outreach, which totals about $100.3 million. The second-highest investment comes from Georgia, which spent $0.21 per person, or roughly $2.3 million.

"Californians deserve their fair share of federal and financial representation. California will not leave its fate and future in the hands of the federal government," said Ditas Katague, director of the California Census Office, which coordinates statewide outreach and communication efforts targeting the states hardest-to-count residents.

"The state is doing targeted efforts to reach its hardest-to-count populations through grassroots culturally appropriate outreach and multicultural, in-language media efforts," said Katague.

But aside from funding and getting an accurate count, why is the census worth investing so much into?

"We believe when you're filling out the Census, you are giving a voice to your community," said Katague.

Maclay echoed similar sentiments. "Census is so local and national at the same time. Census allows us to address national issues while focusing on local needs and priorities and to reknit some of our social fabric," he said. "It's the law you need to fill out...It's not a political position. It's the law people are counted once and only once and in the right place, but it's a social movement too."

Maclay imagines a world where census participation is as celebrated an act of civic engagement as voting. "There's no sticker like for voting, but maybe there should be."

CORRECTION: We initially reported that L.A. County ranked 21st in the state for its population of children under age 5. L.A. County actually ranks first. We regret the error.


July 4, 9:20 a.m.: This article was updated with news that the citizenship question remains in play.

July 3, 5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with news that the 2020 Census had been sent to be printed without the citizenship question.

This article was originally published on June 26 at 7 a.m.

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