More than 4 million people at risk of not being counted in 2020 census, new report says

Black and Latino households face the greatest risk of being undercounted, while whites, in some scenarios, could be overcounted, the Urban Institute said.
Demonstrators rally at the Supreme Court as arguments are heard on a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census on April 23.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
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By Dartunorro Clark

More than 4 million people — including a significant portion of black and Latino Americans — could be left out of the 2020 census, according to a study from the nonpartisan Urban Institute released Tuesday.

The Washington-based think tank said in its report that "unprecedented threats" facing the 2020 census, such as underfunding, hiring issues, inadequate testing and the potential addition of a citizenship question, could lead to the undercount, which would disproportionately affect minorities.

Conducted every 10 years, the census is required by the Constitution. The results have an outsize influence on the nation's economy and political power. It determines the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state gets and affects the dispersal of billions of federal dollars that go toward schools, hospitals, roads and a number of other vital areas.

For this report, the institute crunched past census data and incorporated current funding and testing challenges faced by the Census Bureau to make its projections. The report's authors noted that it is difficult to precisely project census figures, which is why they created "risk" scenarios, such as low and high. Low risk assumes the 2020 census will be on par with the 2010 census. High risk predicts that the census would perform below expectations, which government watchdogs have predicted.

According to the Urban Institute's findings, black and Hispanic households face being undercounted nationally by almost 4 percent in a "high risk" scenario. White households, however, would be overcounted by .03 percent nationally under the same scenario.

An overcount occurs when there are enumeration errors, such as overestimating a household size or reliance on administrative records from other federal agencies to count hard-to-reach populations, the report said. Experts also note that while most past decennial counts have had accuracy issues, they were statistically insignificant. For comparison, the 2010 census undercounted 2.1 percent of the black population and 1.5 percent of the Latino population, according to the Census Bureau.

Robert Santos, the vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, said in a statement that this raises concerns that "one group will benefit more than it should at the expense of others."

"This all comes down to the basic concept of fairness,” he said.

On the state level, the report warned that California and Texas — the nation's two largest states, both with large numbers of immigrants — could face the greatest undercount risk, with up to 2 percent of their population not being counted.

The report also said that in the country's 10 most populous states — California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas — black, Latino, Asian and Native American and Pacific Islander households would face an undercount in both low- and high-risk scenarios. White households in those states would be overcounted in almost every case, except in high-risk scenarios in Texas and California.

The 2020 census has come under intense scrutiny after President Donald Trump's administration announced it would add the citizenship question, which critics say is an attempt to weaponize the census to punish blue states, which have large noncitizen populations, and stoke fear among immigrants.

“Every American should be counted, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, income or where they live,” Diana Elliott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said in a statement. “The census is a key building block of our government and our society at the national, state and local level. Miscounts of this magnitude will have real consequences for the next decade, including how we fund programs for children and invest in our infrastructure."

Trump's administration has maintained that adding the question was intended to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court is now considering whether the Department of Commerce acted properly in ordering the Census Bureau to include the question.

However, court filings released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit to prevent the addition of the question revealed that the idea originated with Thomas Hofeller, a Republican redistricting specialist, who wrote in letters and memos that the question would create an electoral advantage for "Republicans and non-Hispanic whites."

NBC News also previously reported that the Trump administration's plan to add the citizenship question is just one of a number of critical issues plaguing the Census Bureau. Last year, the Government Accountability Office stated that there were a number of red flags that could undermine the accuracy of the census, including budget woes, potential cybersecurity weaknesses, hiring shortfalls, testing cutbacks and a bankrupt printing company.

The Census Bureau has previously said that it is confident that it will complete an accurate 2020 census.

Dartunorro Clark

Dartunorro Clark is a political reporter for NBC News.