Keep politics out of the census

For a variety of reasons, including matching spending with need, the census should be as accurate as we can make it.

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Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23 to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.


Fiddling with numbers can’t make real needs go away. That’s especially true when the numbers are those of the U.S. Census.

For most of its history, the U.S. Census has tried every 10 years to count everyone living in the country, no matter who they were. Undocumented immigrants have never been excluded. On Monday, though, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over President Donald Trump’s nakedly political effort to change that. Trump wants to leave undocumented immigrants out of the count.

Trump, who lost a lower court ruling, has political advantage in mind, but if he succeeds, he will undermine efforts to align government spending with need. It will set back America for 10 years.

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Trump’s plan flies in the face of the Constitution, which in two places refers to counting “the whole number” of persons in each state. It also would undermine public policymakers and businesses, which use census numbers in their planning. An unreliable count this year not only would give us an erroneous snapshot of how many people live in different areas across the country, but it also will skew any attempt to use future census data to spot trends.

Census numbers are used to match up population growth with such things as new roads, hospitals and schools. Epidemiologists use demographic information from the Census Bureau to improve public health and track epidemics. Disaster response teams use the numbers to prioritize aid.

All of those efforts will be thrown off kilter if the Census Bureau’s decennial tally is not accurate. An estimated 10.5 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants live in America.

The U.S. Census, which is a mammoth undertaking under the best of circumstances, has been caught up in political winds. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to add a citizenship question on this year’s census, which was a backhanded way to discourage immigrants from participating. Last month, the Supreme Court let the Trump administration end the census count early, at a time when COVID-19 had made it harder to do the count because people were reluctant to open their doors to talk to enumerators.

Trump’s goal appears to be securing an undercount in states with large numbers of immigrants at least in part because the census data is used to reapportion the 435 U.S. House seats every 10 years. Census numbers also are used to ensure state and local legislative districts have equal numbers of people.

A big enough undercount could reduce the number of congressional seats in some states and increase it in others. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, California, Florida and Texas would each lose a seat.

But the data also is used to steer hundreds of billions of dollars in annual government annual spending. A miscount would steer spending on Medicaid, special education grants, school lunches, Head Start and other programs away from where it is needed. Illinois, which was already considered likely to lose a congressional seat even without an undercount, would likely get fewer federal dollars than it deserves.

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The Census Bureau is supposed to send its data to Trump by Dec. 31, and Trump is supposed to submit it to Congress in early January. During the arguments on Monday, the high court justices seemed skeptical of the Trump administration’s arguments.

“If an undocumented person has been in the country for, say, 20 years, even if illegally, why would such a person not have a settled residence?” asked Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice.

Some justices also hinted they might not rule before the deadline because they don’t yet know what Trump will do or how many immigrants might be excluded.

Moreover, it’s not clear at this point whether the Census Bureau, with all the challenges it faces, can finish its count and tally the numbers of undocumented immigrants before Jan. 20, when President-elect Joseph Biden takes over and Trump’s plan becomes moot, although there is worry in some quarters the Trump administration will try to ram through whatever it has.

The bottom line, though, is clear. The Census Bureau should do its level best to count everyone in the country. Tilting the count for political advantage, no matter who is trying to do it, should be off the table.

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