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Early end to census count is 'particularly cruel' to Latinos amid Covid, advocates say

"You can't expect to have a full count when you have an entire administration working against you," said NALEO's Lizette Escobedo.
Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Supreme Court
Demonstrators rally at the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

Flor Barrio has told her sons to never take her to the local hospital in Elmhurst, Queens. Just the thought of the long lines at the hospital, which is part of the nation’s largest public health care system, discourages her from going there.

"In March, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw that the hospital couldn't cope with the demand. And I think it's because there wasn't an accurate count of all the people they're suppose to serve in that area," Barrio told NBC News in Spanish.

That same month, some census workers visited her church and she learned how to participate in the 2020 census and encourage others to do the same. She filled out the form in the hopes that her high-density neighborhood will get the public resources it needs, including hospitals, schools, public transportation and infrastructure.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could immediately halt the process of gathering census information in the field, blocking a lower court order that said the effort should continue until Oct. 31, to make up for time lost during the pandemic.

"I wasn't shocked, but I was disappointed and I was frustrated," Lizette Escobedo, director of National Census Program at NALEO, a nonprofit organization working to civically engage Latinos, told NBC News. "This administration has done so much to block a full enumeration."

Barrio agrees. "Our government has not done everything in its power to make sure we all get counted. On the contrary, they've done everything they can to intimidate us," she said.

Conducted every 10 years, the census is required by the Constitution. It determines the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state gets, Electoral College votes and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal tax dollars for health care, education and other public services.

Self-response and field data collection operations for the 2020 census will conclude Thursday, the Census Bureau said.

Critics: Trump has politicized the census

Escobedo, who has been working to avoid a nationwide undercount of Latinos for the past few years, said that the latest Supreme Court decision seems to be consistent with previous Trump administration efforts to politicize and undermine the census — including the administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire and President Donald Trump's recent memo to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, saying he wants to exclude undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. from the census for purposes of deciding how many members of Congress are apportioned to each state.

Critics have said that other administration efforts at politicizing the Census Bureau include placing at least three political appointees in top positions within the agency — raising concerns among some Democrats and the American Statistical Association, the nation's largest professional association of statisticians, about partisan interference in the national head count.

A study from the nonpartisan Urban Institute found that the 2020 census faced hiring shortfalls and lacked "a predictable and adequate funding stream" necessary to produce "as accurate a count as possible."

"You can't expect to have a full count when you have an entire administration working against you," said Escobedo.

Latinos have been undercounted for decades, particularly Latino children who are among the nation's most undercounted populations, according to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of American civil rights interest groups. It is estimated that 1 in 3 Latinos in the U.S. live in communities traditionally considered as hard to count.

"Regardless of your political leanings, a bad census hurts everyone," Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts Campaign, told NBC News. The campaign is composed of national organizations pushing to ensure an accurate count, especially in underserved communities.

"For the Latino community in particular, we know that there's so many changing demographics and such a growing population," Lynk said. "We cannot afford a skewed or inaccurate portrait of our country because it threatens to erase the beautiful diversity within our country, particularly within the Latino community."

Possible undercount's impact on Covid-19 response

The Census Bureau said Tuesday that 66.8 percent of American households have filled the census online, by phone or by mail. However, the bureau claims that they've accounted for 99.9 percent of all housing units with 33.1 percent counted by census takers and other field data collection such as proxy responses.

Both Escobedo and Lynk said that data collected during door-knocking operations or publicly available records are less reliable than self-responses, especially when it comes to how a person identifies and how many people live in a certain household.

"Right now, we're looking at data that threatens an undercount of communities of color, of rural communities, of low income communities, possibly at a magnitude that we didn't see in 2010; but we won't know until we see the data for sure," said Lynk, adding that 70 percent of the nation's predominantly Hispanic census tracts had lower self-response rates compared to the 2010 census, as of Sept. 30.

An undercount stands to seriously threaten the ability of Latino families to recover from the health and economic consequences of the pandemic, which has disproportionately infected and killed them, and left them out of work.

"This is why it feels particularly cruel to this right now as our communities try to figure out how they're going to get out of this. At the very least, we would want to give them the resources they need for the next 10 years," said Escobedo, adding that census data will be crucial in the long-term response to Covid-19. From figuring out how many vaccines a community will need to creating economic recovery plans for small businesses and providing access to affordable health care, "all of that is determined by census data," she said.

"What's going to happen between now and 2030?" Barrio said. "Will our hospitals have enough resources?"

For Latinos to have "a fighting chance at moving forward, away from this pandemic, getting an accurate count is the way to go," Escobedo said.

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