As feared, 2020 Census undercounted Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans

Activists and elected leaders reeling from the statistics are already strategizing how to minimize the impact of the undercounts. Those efforts should continue.

SHARE As feared, 2020 Census undercounted Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans
Signs advertising the 2020 Census were posted near South Sacramento Drive and West Roosevelt Road on the Southwest Side in September 2020.

Signs advertising the 2020 Census were posted near South Sacramento Drive and West Roosevelt Road on the Southwest Side in September 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It was a dreaded outcome that was counted on.

With a pandemic in full swing and a presidential administration in power that was hostile to communities of color and immigrants, analysts and activists had expected flaws in 2020 U.S. Census figures.

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On March 10, those fears were confirmed when the Census Bureau released a report that revealed a significant undercount — far higher than in 2010 — of Black people, Hispanics and Native Americans. Undercounts occur when residents don’t fill out forms or are otherwise missing from the decennial count.

White people, conversely, were once again overcounted, which means individuals were counted more than once or were included in error, such as when someone owns a vacation home and is counted there as well as at a permanent home address. The overcount rate was 1.6%.

Asians were also overcounted by 2.6%, the Census Bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey shows.

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Accurate census figures are important for a host of reasons. Census results are used to calculate how many congressional seats each state will have, and Illinois is already slated to lose one seat in Congress because of population loss.

Census figures also determine the distribution of hundreds of billions in federal spending every year to states and communities, for programs such as Medicaid, community block grants and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Planners and demographers used the numbers 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.

Because the 2020 census undercounts of populations of color were higher than they were in 2010, those communities could experience a loss of federal funding and political representation, something advocates warned about in the months leading up to the census.

Activists and elected leaders are already strategizing on how to minimize the impact of the undercounts, as they have done before.

Those efforts should continue. It’s an encouraging sign that here in Illinois, Sen. Dick Durbin’s office is providing the Census Bureau with resources and information on towns that are believed to have been undercounted.

Comparison to 2010

Nationwide, Hispanics were undercounted at a rate of 5% in 2020. Black people were undercounted at a rate of 3.3%, and Native Americans living on reservations were undercounted by 5.6%.

Those identifying as another race had a 4.3% undercount, according to the 2020 data.

Those figures are starkly higher than a decade before, when Hispanics were undercounted by 1.5%, African Americans by more than 2%, Native Americans by 4.9%; and those identifying as another race by 1.6%.

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Chicago’s “hard-to-count” population of roughly 1.3 million people is concentrated in low-income communities like Austin, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Chicago Lawn, Little Village, North Lawndale and West Englewood.

Many residents in these neighborhoods, which are largely Black and Hispanic, have historically been wary to fill out census forms because of a lack of trust in government or a mistaken belief that their personal information will be shared. Federal law requires that census information be kept private, used only to produce statistics.

It didn’t help matters that Donald Trump’s administration tried to get a citizenship question added to the 2020 Census. That effort rightly failed.

Language barriers have also been an issue.

Robert Santos, who was sworn in as the first Hispanic to lead the Census Bureau earlier this year, said he will continue to try and chip away at the detrimental trend and undo damage caused by the Trump administration.

“We’ll be exploring the under-and overcounts further,” Santos said in a statement last week.

Closing the gaps even a little will go a long way to ensuring that those in undercounted communities receive the federal resources and political representation to which they are entitled.

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