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The Early Termination of the 2020 Census

The Trump Administration has been pushing to end the 2020 Census early for months now. The Administration’s purported justification for its initial goal of a September 30th end date was that ending early would permit the Census Bureau to compile all the information by the statutory deadline of December 31st. This was opposed by several civil rights groups, who petitioned for (and were granted) a preliminary injunction requiring the Census Bureau to continue its count through December 31st. The Administration asked the Supreme Court to stay the injunction, a decision that many Americans anxiously awaited.

Unfortunately, that decision was just made in favor of the Trump Administration. The Supreme Court stayed the injunction, allowing the Trump Administration to end the 2020 Census well over a month early. The only dissenting Justice in the case was Justice Sotomayor, who claimed that the decision would cause “intolerable” harms for many minority communities.

This is not the first time that the Trump Administration has tried to interfere with the Census, with the particular intent of excluding racial and ethnic minorities from the count. Just over a year ago, the Supreme Court blocked the Administration from including a citizenship question on the 2020 census, due to concerns that this question would discourage immigrants from participating. More recently, three federal judges prevented the Administration from once again attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census count.

This is, however, the first time that the Trump Administration has succeeded in its mission to broadly undercount minority groups. And it comes at a time when there are already valid concerns about the accuracy of the Census. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a shortage of Census workers, which indicates that the Census should be completed in more time, not less. While the Census Bureau claims it has counted 99.9% of households so far this year, there are legitimate doubts about the accuracy of this number given the pandemic and the Administration’s undying determination to undercount minority groups.

A Census that accurately counts and reports population demographics is incredibly important. The final Census count determines the number of seats in Congress for each area of the country, as well as the allocation of $1.5 trillion in annual federal funding. The Census also determines how many electoral college votes each state gets.

Given how important accuracy is for the Census, experts (including a former Director of the Census Bureau) have described just how harmful it can be when the Census is cut short. For one thing, a shorter time frame for knocking on doors leads to an increased reliance on statistical projections, which often leaves out households that are difficult to reach.

One of the hardest groups to reach—and one of the groups who will be most harmed by ending the Census early—is the Native American population.

How Early Termination Disproportionately Harms Native American Communities

In the most recent census, Native Americans were the most undercounted minority group in the United States by a large margin: nearly 5% of their population was not counted. With the 2010 Census listing the total Native American population as 3 million, and current pre-Census projections from the World Population Review estimating a total Native American population of nearly 6.8 million, a 5% undercount leaves out a tremendous amount of people. This pattern is likely to continue; so far this year, self-response rates for Native Americans living on tribal lands are at just 41.6%, 25% below the current response rate nationwide.

Why are Native Americans so chronically undercounted? One reason is that they are hard to reach. Many people living on tribal lands do not have access to reliable internet and mail services, so their being counted depends on in-person follow up from Census workers (which normally would be taking place right now). This in-person follow up also takes more time because many tribal lands are located in remote areas, which makes residents hard to reach and contributes to delays.

Another reason that Native Americans aren’t counted as accurately is that the Census simply wasn’t designed with them in mind. Census paperwork is not inclusive of Native Americans; the languages on the forms oftentimes do not include many Native American languages, and there usually is not enough room on the forms for individuals to put their full tribal names. Also, the names of towns where Native Americans live often differ from what the federal government considers the town names to be. Not only that, but many Native Americans are afraid of the United States government – for good reason. These factors all discourage participation, which decreases count accuracy.

But an accurate Census count is incredibly important for Native American communities, particularly when it comes to funding. The average income for Native Americans is the lowest among every racial and ethnic group in the United States, and it is even lower if you only consider people who live on reservations (the population most likely to be missed by the Census). Tribal poverty translates into a lack of key resources (like water, food, and basic educational supplies), and has also been partially linked to high rates of violent crime, where Native Americans experience significantly higher rates of murder, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Finally, the education of Native American children suffers due to a lack of funding, with these children experiencing elevated high school dropout rates and lower rates of collegiate education compared to other children across the country.

These problems will only be exacerbated by terminating the Census early. Without ample time to accurately count the Native American population, the federal government is condemning Native American communities to at least another ten years of poverty and lower quality of life.

Long Term Effects and What Can Be Done

The continual undercounting of Native American communities on the Census is the very definition of structural racism. Years and years of undercounting only exacerbates discrepancies in funding and government representation, which in turn contributes to the oppression of Native Americans in the United States. In other words, consistently failing to accurately count Native Americans results in a “trap in poorly invested communities.” Native American communities are not, and have largely never been, included in nationwide policy discussions, partially because they’re a comparatively small percentage of the population with little representation. Undercounting them on the Census only leads to even less Native American representation, and therefore less consideration of their needs and the challenges their communities face. This violates one of the most fundamental rights of every American: the right to participation and representation in a democratic society.

Right now, the best way to combat this is to give the Census accurate time to be completed. The National Congress of American Indians has recently issued a statement condemning the Supreme Court’s decision and the actions of the Trump Administration. In this statement, they urge Congress to take immediate action by extending the Census to its statutory deadline of December 31st, to prevent Native American communities from losing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding like they did in 2010. In the long term, the federal government should amend the Census to ensure an accurate count of Native American communities. This can be done by making Census forms more accessible to Native Americans, by better recruiting Census workers from within tribal communities who are trusted and who can better access hard-to-reach people, and, critically, by leaving ample time to ensure an accurate count. In the words of Justice Sotomayor, prioritizing efficiency “at the expense of the accuracy of the Census is not a cost worth paying.”