As Census approaches, some advocates worried Asian Americans could be undercounted

Image: A simulated Non Response Follow-up interview in Houston in Feb. 2016 to prepare for the 2020 census.
A simulated Non Response Follow-up interview in Houston in Feb. 2016 to prepare for the 2020 census.Scott Dalton / via

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By Chris Fuchs

As the federal government prepares for the 2020 Census, some community advocates are questioning the extent to which underfunding will affect the results of the constitutionally mandated headcount, done once every 10 years.

Experts say it’s a real concern for traditionally undercounted populations, among them minority, immigrant, and low-income communities. That includes Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians, who account for 6.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census data.

A major difference between the last Census and the 2020 count is that the bureau is pushing respondents to answer the questionnaire online — a move that worries some civil rights groups.

“Part of the problem is that community organizations aren’t funded to do this work by the Census Bureau. They’re supported by philanthropic foundations. Those foundations need to step up their support for the 2020 Census.”

“As the bureau moves towards a reliance on the Internet and online content, there’ll be fewer linguistically and culturally competent field staff,” Daniel Ichinose, director of the Demographic Research Project / Census Information Center at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Los Angeles, said. “And we know that those hardest to count in our communities are those who have less access to the Internet.”

Much is at stake for conducting an accurate Census. Among other things, the count helps decide the number of seats awarded to states in the House of Representatives; the way representative boundaries are drawn on local, state, and federal levels; and how $675 billion a year in federal funds is distributed.

The Census Bureau’s pivot to technology, which includes online responses and satellite imagery to build a database of U.S. addresses, is part of an effort to carry out the 2020 Census at a lower cost per household, when adjusted for inflation, than in 2010.

Relying on technology and the use of existing data, the Census Bureau projected in 2015 that an “innovative” 2020 Census would cost $12.5 billion, a savings of $5.3 billion compared to a traditional count.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was confirmed in February, upped that price tag when he testified before Congress on Oct. 12. The new figure he gave the House Oversight Committee was $15.6 billion, roughly a 25 percent increase over the bureau’s 2015 projection.

Ross’s number included an additional $187 million over what the Trump administration had requested for Fiscal Year 2018, which began in October.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) also introduced a bill in October for a Census Bureau funding increase of around $441 million over the administration’s original budget ask, which critics have said was too low.

While Census funding typically ramps up in the final few years preceding a count, some experts say they haven’t seen that happening this time around.

The bureau, meanwhile, has had to cancel field tests for 2017 but would carry on with other planned testing that focuses on “systems readiness and Internet response,” according to a General Accountability Office (GAO) report published earlier this year.

“The cancellation, the streamlining, and delaying of critical tests is a big concern, particularly given those changes and how the Census will be conducted,” Ichinose said.

A simulated Non Response Follow-Up interview in Glendale, California in March 2016, in preparation for the 2020 census.Lee Roth / via

Ross told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Oct. 31 that the 2018 Census “End-to-End Test” — which is intended to test technology, data collection methods, outreach strategies, and other components of the 2020 survey — was now underway.

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Ross also testified before the Senate that the bureau meets quarterly with GAO to discuss open recommendations and how to close them. GAO had placed the 2020 Census on its High Risk List, which includes federal programs and operations “especially vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformative change.”

Census spokesman Michael C. Cook Sr. told NBC News in an email that its “top priority is to have a complete and accurate count of everyone.”

“In order to accomplish this goal, the Census Bureau began hiring partnership staff in Fiscal Year 2016 – a full year earlier than for the 2010 Census,” he said. “The current Lifecycle Cost Estimate also includes funding to support 1,000 Partnership Specialists in 2020, which is an increase of 25 percent relative to 2010.”

Cook added, “The U.S. Census Bureau is committed to maximizing self-response rates across all demographic and socio-economic groups in the 2020 Census, particularly for traditionally hard-to-count populations.”

Traditionally, Census respondents completed paper forms and mailed them back to the bureau, but for the 2020 count they’ll be asked primarily to do it online, according to Terry Minnis, director of the census and voting programs for the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

The concern, though, is that not everybody has access. Around 13 percent of adults in the U.S. do not use the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center.

“There is certainly a differential and digital divide for different communities,” Minnis said.

The paper form will still be an option, she noted. For the online version, Minnis said it needs to be available across different mediums, like smartphones and mobile devices.

“We know that those types of devices help to bridge...the gap that exists around access to broadband,” she said.

The Census Bureau is also using records and satellite imagery to identify from its offices all addresses where people could live, a task once completed entirely by staffers in the field. This is an important first step to ensuring everyone is counted.

“If you’re not in that list, then you’re just not a part of the Census process,” Minnis said.

The bureau will still hit the streets to verify around 25 percent of addresses, the bulk of that canvass taking place in 2019, according to an executive summary of the bureau’s operational plan.

But concerns remain. One that Minnis raised centered on what she called non-traditional housing. In immigrant communities, for instance, it’s not uncommon for more than one family to live in what appears to be one household. Community groups worry that those people might be missed during an in-office canvass.

“If you have somebody in the field, perhaps they might visually notice something that would indicate that there might be another housing unit on that property,” Minnis said.

Partnership specialists, Zee Quintana, left, and Cristina Vaccaro discuss details of the 2010 Census form while waiting to help residents of the Caldwell Housing Authority community, which is home to more than 1,000 low-income and Spanish-speaking residents, on April 1, 2010 in Caldwell, Idaho.Charlie Litchfield / Idaho Press-Tribune via AP file

There’s also the task of getting out the message of completing the questionnaire. Ross, the commerce secretary, said during his October testimony before Congress that just 63.5 percent of the population voluntarily responded to the last Census. That number could drop to 55 percent in 2020, he said.

“Despite massive communications, we’ve assumed that a higher percentage of the population will still need the foot soldiers clogging around, ringing doorbells,” Ross testified.

To this end, the bureau is spending a total of $748 million on outreach, according to Ross. He testified that the $500 million it set aside for communications alone is an almost 20 percent increase, when adjusted for inflation, over what was spent on the 2010 count.

But today, experts say, the media landscape is more fragmented than ever before. Some worry about the bureau’s ability to carry out an effective advertising campaign given the vast diversity within the Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities.

“We need to make sure that the messages that the Census Bureau develops resonate with our communities,” Ichinose said.

Ichinose noted that, in theory, some of the changes the bureau has in store for 2020 could help reach Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities. Those include expanding the number of languages in which the Census questionnaire is available, he said.

“Of course, that plan has to be fully funded to be effective,” Ichinose added, saying they’re hoping it’ll include one or two additional Asian languages.

Experts and community organizations also identified concerns about how immigration status and a growing mistrust of what government does with the data it collects may affect the 2020 Census.

Some Asian Americans, many of them Chinese immigrants, have been pushing back against efforts to collect and publish detailed data on Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

Proponents of such data believe it can help expose disparities in education and health care for ethnic groups that get lost in the mix and end up not receiving the services they need. But critics are skeptical and believe it’s an underhanded way of advancing race-based policies.

“As the bureau moves towards a reliance on the Internet and online content, there’ll be fewer linguistically and culturally competent field staff. And we know that those hardest to count in our communities are those who have less access to the Internet.”

Come 2020, those fears may lead some to reconsider how they identify on the Census questionnaire.

“There may be a problem undercounting Asian Americans, and especially Chinese Americans, if they refuse to fill out the race category on the Census form,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside, told NBC News.

An undercount could, for instance, prevent communities from receiving certain government resources, like support for limited English speakers, Ramakrishnan said. It could also discourage investments from private businesses that errantly assume a demographic they’re targeting is too small in a particular community.

As preparations for the 2020 Census move forward, Ichinose said there will be a continued reliance on “trusted messengers,” like community groups, even with the new technology planned for use in the decennial headcount.

“Part of the problem is that community organizations aren’t funded to do this work by the Census Bureau,” Ichinose continued. “They’re supported by philanthropic foundations. Those foundations need to step up their support for the 2020 Census.”

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