The blog of the Urban Institute
April 16, 2019

Fairness, Not Just Accuracy, Is Vital to the 2020 Census

April 16, 2019

As the 2020 Census approaches, it’s important to remember that securing an accurate count of the total population of the nation could still fall short of our constitutional mandate. To fulfill this mandate, we need a fair and accurate census count.

All people are created equal, and no person deserves to be counted in a census more than any other, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed. As such, fairness is a value inseparably tied to conducting a census in the United States. We must each be counted and represented equally. After all, there is a lot at stake besides fulfilling a constitutional mandate, as the decennial census affects the allocation of congressional house seats, federal funding, and state and local budgets.

An accurate census count doesn’t always paint a complete picture. When overcounts of some groups of people (often non-Hispanic white people) counterbalance undercounts of other groups (such as people of color and young children), they result in an unfair census. Improperly representing certain groups alters our view of the nation and exacerbates inequities that are already pervasive in the US.

The 2010 Census shows the difference between accuracy and fairness

The 2010 Census was arguably one of the more accurate decennial censuses conducted in recent history. The Census Bureau’s estimate of net accuracy suggested that the 2010 national population count was within 0.01 percent of the actual total. And independent census-based state population estimates (PDF) were “not statistically different” from their corresponding decennial census counts.

But the accuracy of the overall population count came at the expense of miscounting certain groups of people. Non-Hispanic white people were overcounted by almost 1 percent nationally, while black people were undercounted by about 2 percent, Hispanic people were undercounted by 1.5 percent, and other groups were undercounted even more. These errors counterbalanced to produce the “tiny” overcount of 0.01 percent for the total 2010 US population.

A separate, subsequent demographic analysis (PDF) that assessed the accuracy of the 2010 Census also revealed an endemic problem that has beleaguered the decennial census for decades: 5 percent of children younger than 5 were missed in the 2010 count.

Overcounting white people and undercounting people of color and young children is not a fair way to count people in a census, regardless of the resulting overall accuracy of the count.

The consequences of an unfair census

Such varied inaccuracies in census subpopulation counts alter our view of the demographic makeup of our nation, our state, and our local community. The lens we use to view ourselves becomes distorted; we are not who we think we are. In turn, this can affect important policy decisions and inhibit community development.

When neighborhoods of color or those with majorities of immigrants are undercounted while white neighborhoods are overcounted, community needs assessments and subsequent funding could be adversely affected. Undercounted neighborhoods would not receive their fair share of federal funding or other resources, while other neighborhoods would receive more than they deserve.

After all, funding allocation is a zero-sum game. If one group gets more, the other must get less—a fact that exacerbates the challenges of struggling communities. And businesses and government jurisdictions that rely on decennial census data might reach inappropriate conclusions in their planning of business and service locations (e.g., grocery stores, clinics, schools, and fire stations) or infrastructure investments (e.g., road improvements, public transportation, and cell phone tower locations). This could preserve or even advance existing structural disparities rather than mitigate them.

What does this all mean for the 2020 Census?

Preparations for the 2020 Decennial Census have been undermined by chronic underfunding throughout the decade, which has curtailed testing. This underfunding, in addition to the late introduction of a citizenship question (in the face of clear evidence of its adverse impact on participation by households with noncitizens) and new systems such as online participation and administrative records imputations (PDF), threatens the fairness of the 2020 Census.

But we can help reduce this threat. We have a civic duty to make the 2020 Census the best it can be. That means participating yourself (including everyone in your household) and encouraging friends, family, neighbors, and community members to participate. We are all equally worthy of being counted, and our communities deserve to receive their fair shares of resources and representation.

Shynice Mays sits on the stoop of her grandmother's house with her son Jeremy and dachsund Smurf in the Holy Cross neighborhood July 21, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images).

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