Rural Deep South at most risk of being overlooked in 2020 Census

US Postal Service mail carrier Thomas Russell holds a census form while working his route. US census advocates held a rally Saturday, April 10, 2010 at the Mas Jid Ash-Shaheed mosque in Charlotte, NC to convince people to fill out the 2010 census form.
US Postal Service mail carrier Thomas Russell holds a census form while working his route. US census advocates held a rally Saturday, April 10, 2010 at the Mas Jid Ash-Shaheed mosque in Charlotte, NC to convince people to fill out the 2010 census form. AP

Political, operational and funding uncertainties surrounding the 2020 Census have put rural residents in the Deep South at heightened risk of being overlooked in the decennial headcount.

Another possible hurdle to a comprehensive census count: demands for a question about citizenship that researchers say could lay the groundwork for a loss of seven congressional seats from the nation’s three most populous states, California, Texas and Florida.

Home to large numbers of traditionally hard-to-count groups like the poor, minorities, immigrants and children, the South had the highest regional undercount rate in the 2010 Census, according to federal data. And with a larger percentage of Southerners living in rural areas than the nation as a whole, the region will again prove challenging for headcounters in 2020.

Rural counties make up nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 316 “hard-to-count” counties with low Census mail return rates, said William O’Hare, a Virginia demographer and Census consultant who studies rural populations. Of the 93 hard-to-count counties with majority-minority populations, 75 are in rural areas, he said.

A possible question on the 2020 Census about citizenship and immigration status would make an accurate headcount even more difficult, stakeholders say. The U.S. Department of Justice, which asked the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question, argues it would provide better data to help protect the voting rights of minorities.

In addition, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has filed legislation, the Census Accuracy Act, calling for a census citizenship question. He said in a recent video that the Census is “distorting America” by counting all people.

“This upcoming Census, I want to count separately the citizens, separate from the non-citizens, the lawfully present Americans separate from the illegal aliens that are here so Americans can see how bad this is,” King said.

Civil rights advocates, like former Attorney General Eric Holder, say adding a question on citizenship would undermine the count.

"Contrary to what the Trump Justice Department is saying, a citizenship question is not necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act and would serve only to depress the count of minority populations,” Holder said in a statement. “This would unfairly shift electoral power and federal resources from urban population centers to rural areas more generally populated by Trump’s supporters.”

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, agreed.

“Adding a citizenship question at this late hour into the short form of the census would essentially sabotage the census,” Gupta said. “It would have such a chilling effect in immigrant communities and ensure that many people, already in hard-to-count communities with pretty pitched anti-immigrant political climates,” would not participate in the headcount.

Most of the nation’s rural, hard-to-count and majority-black counties are in the Deep South, including 16 in Mississippi, seven in Georgia and five in Alabama, demographer O’Hare said. Of 37 majority-Hispanic, hard-to-count counties, 29 are in rural areas. Texas alone has 20.

“A lot of counties in the rural South are heavily minority and very poor. And both of those factors are related to being hard to count,” O’Hare said.

In rural Tunica, Miss., Melvin Young, a census specialist with Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County, said he tries to raise community awareness about the Census. But he said it is an uphill struggle to increase response rates in the low-income area. He said the “Trump effect” is actually helping, though.

“A lot of people have said, ‘I see that people are attacking us and not wanting us to get counted.’ And that has been motivating some of our people,” Young said. But others require straight talk about how Census undercounts could shortchange local school funding, social services, housing assistance and highway funds, he added.

“The Census is the beginning of the distribution of political power on all levels,” Young said. “We realize how important it is. But a lot of people don’t. So we have to let them know.”

To help improve response rates, the Census Bureau was supposed to field test a new method, known as “update and enumerate,” to count households in rural areas. It calls for workers to verify an address, then knock on doors to try to meet and count residents.

Census officials initially planned to test the approach in rural West Virginia. But that dress rehearsal was scaled back last year to include only address checks after President Trump’s proposed Census Bureau budget left a gaping shortfall. Instead, census workers will still update addresses in person, but instead of seeking personal visits with unresponsive households, they’ll simply leave a paper questionnaire at the door.

“In our view, that’s pennywise and pound foolish because you’re not being efficient in making sure people get counted,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund. “You’re crossing your fingers and hoping people are going to fill it out and return it.”

Scrapping the full field test in West Virginia was crucial because the 2020 Census will be the first to allow respondents to complete and return their questionnaire online. The bureau expects about 41 percent of respondents to use the cost-saving internet option.

Testing the new method in rural West Virginia, where broadband access is limited, could have identified potential problems and adjustments needed to make the actual rollout more effective.

Connectivity issues and a lack of computers in low-income homes means the bureau will struggle to get online responses in rural areas, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Census consultant and former staff director of the House Census oversight subcommittee.

“The automation of the 2020 Census will keep costs down, but the digital divide still means many, if not most, rural households will have to rely on a paper questionnaire,” Lowenthal said.

Other census field tests were cancelled in 2017 and this year as well, due to funding shortages. Census watchers fear the cutbacks will slow efforts to improve outreach and public awareness for the upcoming census.

Although President Trump and Congress have upped their funding requests for the Census Bureau as 2020 approaches, stakeholders say the proposals fall short of what’s needed this year and next year to step up preparation for the main event.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress in October that a “full, fair, and accurate census” would cost $15.6 billion. That’s $3.3 billion more than a 2015 estimate. Ross said an extra $187 million was needed this year to keep the project on schedule. The recent continuing budget resolution approved by Congress provided an additional $182 million.

Young, in Tunica, said he still worries that funding shortages could mean fewer local census offices where area residents in the impoverished Mississippi Delta can apply for jobs.

“We know that if we don’t have (local) enumerators, who are known by people on the ground, helping those that did not fill out their census forms, it’s going to be devastating,” for local response rates, Young said.

Civil rights groups say a citizenship question on the 2020 Census would hurt participation even more.

In their letter asking for the question, the Justice Department said it would help provide “reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.” The letter dated Dec. 12, 2017, also lists a number of court decisions, including a Supreme Court ruling citing vote dilution when a racial group is deprived of a single-member district because of state and local government redistricting.

Civil rights groups say the question would cause undercounts to spike among immigrants fearful about their resident status. Those fears, however, are unfounded because federal law prohibits the use of census data for non-statistical purposes and bars the sharing with anyone of data that would identify individuals or households, even for law enforcement and national security reasons.

But census researchers have already noticed increased concerns from foreign-language speakers about the “Muslim ban,” the dissolution of “DACA,” and people “being told by community leaders not to open the door without a warrant signed by a judge.”

While visiting Hispanic groups in Texas this week to discuss the Census, NALEO’s Vargas said the citizenship question is stoking fear among all immigrants — both legal and undocumented. He said NALEO will soon begin polling and focus group meetings to determine what message and messengers are most effective in encouraging Hispanics to return their Census forms.

“We’re starting early in 2018 because we believe the hurdles will be so high we need to start ramping up now,” Vargas said.

In a recent blog, Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, supported the citizenship question as an essential piece for an informed debate on immigration.

“Without that data, it is impossible to discuss numerous issues intelligently — everything from how many immigrants we should accept every year, to whether chain migration should be maintained, extended, limited or ended,” von Spakovsky wrote.

Including the citizenship question could also set the stage for a major battle over the way congressional seats are determined.

Political districts are now based on the total population, including children and non-citizens who can’t vote. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Evenwel v. Abbott left open the possibility that states could use other data besides total population to draw their political districts.

The Department of Justice wants any citizenship data gleaned from the 2020 Census included in redistricting files that go to states for the redrawing of electoral maps after the census is conducted.

“We need to be counting citizens instead of people for the purposes of redistricting,” Rep. King said.

If citizen-only population counts are used to determine congressional districts, California would lose three seats in 2020, Florida and Texas would lose two apiece and Arizona would lose another, according to new population projections by demographer Dudley Poston of Texas A&M University and Amanda Baumle, a sociologist at the University of Houston.

The eight seats would instead go, one each, to Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Poston and Baumle estimate.

A political shift of that magnitude would be a significant loss of power for states with some of the nation’s largest immigrant populations, while boosting the political clout of some Midwest and Rust Belt states that had been losing population and congressional seats for years.

In his video, King said states that would gain new seats would be “more likely to vote in rule-of-law common sense, constitution, American exceptionalism than the newly arriving illegal immigrants.”

But Holder said his new group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and its affiliate, the National Redistricting Foundation, “are committed to taking action that will ensure an accurate census and fair political redistricting."

He said districts based on criteria other than total population “would be contrary to the equal population requirement and the long-standing principle of one person-one vote.”

The DOJ insists the information derived from the citizenship question would help the department enforce a provision of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority voting strength.

But that claim is a “ruse,” said Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s voting rights division during the Obama administration.

“The Justice Department has never needed that data since enactment of the Voting Rights Act (in 1965) to adequately and appropriately enforce it,” Gupta said.

Enforcement has instead relied on population estimates from the American Community Survey, an ongoing census survey that’s updated annually. The ACS, which replaced the Census long form, asks about citizenship, but not a person’s legal immigration status.

While the civil rights community would likely challenge a Census Bureau decision to include the citizenship question on the 2020 Census, Gupta said she’s hoping Commerce Secretary Ross, who oversees the census bureau, will make the right call.

“Secretary Ross was an enumerator for the census,” Gupta said. “Our hope is that he knows very well what the impact would be of adding that kind of question and that he’s going to do the right thing. Because he knows that the implications would be.”