Out for the Count? Terri Ann Lowenthal on the Coronavirus Threat to the Census

Out for the Count? Terri Ann Lowenthal on the Coronavirus Threat to the Census

Out for the Count? Terri Ann Lowenthal on the Coronavirus Threat to the Census

The Census expert explains the impact of the pandemic on the decennial count.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.

This month the US Census Bureau announced that it was postponing its field operations until June 1 and extending its deadline to count every American to October 31. The pandemic has made it impossible for Census workers to safely knock on the doors of the millions of households who have failed to fill out the Census online (or by phone), live on Indian reservations, or whose homes lie in remote areas with low broadband coverage or inconsistent postal addresses.

“The timing of the health crisis could not have been worse,” leading Census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal told me, “I was already worried that the 2020 Census could be sailing into a perfect storm with headwinds largely out of the Census Bureau’s control. And then the Census got hit by a tsunami.”

When I first met Lowenthal in March of 2018, I was reporting for The Intercept on the Trump administration’s lackluster preparations for the 2020 Census. Lowenthal, whose mother is a champion sailor, has advised three previous Censuses and continues to consult the Bureau and the Census oversight committees. At the time, Lowenthal warned that a confluence of factors was already threatening the Census: underfunding, untested digital systems, unpreparedness in the neediest and historically undercounted communities, and apparent attempts by the administration to politicize the count. Just as I had finished reporting, the Commerce Department announced its intention to include a question about citizenship status on the survey.

The news dropped like a bomb. It was a harbinger of the chaos, confusion, and fear that would accompany a nationwide count carried out by an administration more intent on terrorizing immigrants than on accurately enumerating the nation’s population.

In her cautious way, Lowenthal told me that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s justification for including a citizenship question (that it was necessary to enforce, of all things, minority voting rights!) did “nothing to counter suspicions that he was influenced by partisan factors or political goals unrelated to the Census Bureau’s constitutional mission.” In decades of bipartisan work, Lowenthal has mastered a delicate, plausibly apolitical idiom in which to criticize those attempting to sabotage her work. Our conversations often involve me saying things like, “So, he lied,” and her responding, “You can say that. I’m not saying that.”

A year later, it became clear that Ross had indeed colluded with Steve Bannon and voter suppression guru Kris Kobach to manufacture a rationale for adding the citizenship question in order to undermine the count in diverse and Democratic regions of the country. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, preventing the citizenship question from going forward.

But grave dangers remain. The decennial Census is one of the most consequential ways we distribute political and economic power in America. A failed Census—a term Lowenthal objects to, preferring “a Census whose data is not widely trusted”—would harm poor, nonwhite, and immigrant communities. And it would give aid and comfort to those who hope to preserve white minority rule in the United States. As both Trump’s incompetence and Covid-19 threaten the Census and the nation, I caught up with Lowenthal to discuss the state of play.

—Sam Adler-Bell

Sam Adler-Bell: How is the administration’s decision to delay some of its operational deadlines being received by Census stakeholders?

Terri Ann Lowenthal: Let me start by saying, the term “delay” is not really accurate. The bureau itself is not using that word. Though some in Congress and the media are. To an average person “delay” sounds like, “Oh, OK. They’re not going to finish it. We’re going to do it another time.” That’s not what’s happening. The Census is not being delayed, because the Census has started—and it’s still going on. You can fill out the Census right now online or by phone. And just recently, households that hadn’t yet responded on their own received a paper questionnaire in the mail.

But to answer your question, my sense is that the proposed operational adjustments and requests to revise the reporting deadline is being met somewhat favorably on both sides of the aisle. I believe that Congress needs to quickly evaluate thoroughly the implications—the effects on the quality and accuracy of the data, as well as the implications for the redistricting process in each state—but I don’t have any evidence that there were any partisan motives behind the proposed changes. Census enumerators can’t be out in the field right now.

The rollout of the new plan was mishandled, however, because it was conveyed by the secretary of commerce and staff from the White House, which suggested to some that it was being done without an appropriate operational and scientific basis. But the Census Bureau subsequently made clear that it had recommended the changes. And I have confidence that the bureau believes it is taking the best steps it can to conduct the best Census that it can under very difficult conditions.

SAB: Let’s talk about those conditions. What are all the foreseeable impacts of coronavirus on the 2020 Census, in addition to the altered timeline?

TAL: I am concerned that historically undercounted communities will be disadvantaged the most by these disruptions. I think people who have been displaced due to the public health crisis will be harder to count accurately. Lower-income households, foreign-born households, we are talking about a lot of people who don’t have the luxury of shifting their work home and doing Zoom meetings all day, and then maybe filling out the Census online in the evening. They are now consumed with putting food on the table and keeping their jobs or at least some income coming into the household and keeping their family safe.

We also don’t know yet if the Census Bureau will be able to hire enough workers to get the job done well. We hope so, and for better or worse there may be more folks looking for work by the time the Census Bureau ramps up hiring again. On the other hand, the Census Bureau always relied significantly on retirees for these temporary jobs. And it could be that older people will now be more reluctant to go door to door, speaking to people in person. By the same token, we don’t know whether people, those who didn’t respond on their own, will be willing to open their doors to a stranger. None of us know what the new normal is going to look like in August, September, and October.

There are other issues related to the timeline. Something I’ve been saying for a long time is that “climate change has met the Census.” Natural disasters are now more frequent and more damaging then we’d seen in the past. One of the reasons April 1 has become Census day is seasonality. They want college kids to be at their colleges; they won’t be. They want homeless people—in many states, less so the warmer states—to be more likely to be in a shelter or soup kitchen. And [they want to count] migrant farm workers before they start to disperse throughout the farming states, which usually happens in May and so forth.

But also, there’s hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center just projected an active season, especially along the Gulf Coast and the southeastern United States. And so what happens if one or more major storms hit Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina right as enumerators are out in the field? That’s another serious danger. Climate and the Census is one of my major themes. It worried me before Covid-19. It worries me even more now.

SAB: Thankfully, there won’t be an immigration status question. But are you still worried about fear in immigrant communities contributing to an undercount?

TAL: I am. Research from outside stakeholder groups, like NALEO Education Fund, conducted close to the start of the 2020 Census, continued to show that many immigrant households still believed there was a citizenship question on the form. So considerable damage had already been done from the entire controversy. I believe that immigrant communities likely are still fearful of participating.

SAB: Underfunding of the Census was a big concern of yours when we first spoke in 2018. Are you worried about sufficient funds being allocated for the extended timeline and to make all the necessary changes to the process?

TAL: My understanding, as of now, is that the adjusted Census plan will cost an additional roughly $800 million. The bureau has already started to develop new ads. It has to be more sensitive to the new environment we’re in, and stakeholders are urging the bureau to expand its entire communications campaign, which likely will now have to go on much longer than originally planned.

The administration’s position is that the Census Bureau has enough money to carry out the Census in the wake of these unprecedented changes and new conditions. I, however, urge Congress to look very closely at what the Census Bureau is spending its money on. I think that more money might be needed to expand communications and perhaps to double or even triple the number of enumerators to allow the Census Bureau to complete the door-knocking operation in a shorter period of time.

SAB: If people read this are concerned about the challenges you’ve described here, what should they do? Is there any hope?

TAL: It takes a village to ensure a good Census. Congress must ensure adequate resources and effective oversight of operations. The Census Bureau must deploy a plan that is flexible in meeting the unprecedented challenge of enumerating during a nationwide health crisis. State and local officials, who understandably are focused on keeping their constituents and communities safe, must continue to lift up the importance of being counted. And everyone can help make the Census a success not only by responding, but by helping to spread the word through their social and work networks that it’s safe and important to participate.

Ad Policy