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Accuracy versus cost in the 2020 Census

Statisticians consider the potential losses for states due to an inaccurate count

While the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates whether to allow a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau continues to prepare for its launch on April 1, 2020.

Bruce Spencer professor of statistics and professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and Zachary Seeskin, now a statistician at NORC at the University of Chicago, weigh the importance of taking an accurate census count versus the financial expense of gathering information for the census in a recent working paper.

Spencer is available for comment on the importance of taking an accurate census count. He can be reached at [email protected].

Spencer and Seeskin find that while census accuracy is expensive, it is crucial.

The census determines how many representatives each state gets and how federal dollars are distributed. Census error, exacerbated by past funding shortfalls, could easily shift as many as six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives due to an inaccurate count, according to the study. For example, in one set of projections they find that large census inaccuracy would cause Florida to lose one seat and Texas to lose two seats, and Minnesota, Ohio and Rhode Island to each gain one seat.

Spencer explains that less accuracy not only has consequences for the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, but also for the electoral system.

“Census error exacerbates unfairness in representation due to gerrymandering and suppression of voter turnout,” Spencer said. “Patterns of error across past censuses show that minority groups are undercounted relative to others.”

While every Census faces challenges and even controversies, the count remains important because it’s the federal government’s very first responsibility to the U.S. Constitution, the cornerstone of the nation’s representative democracy and America’s largest peacetime activity, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant to many census stakeholders and former staff director for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Census and Population.

However, Lowenthal believes the 2020 Census is heading into “a perfect storm.”

“I think of unprecedented factors that could thwart a successful enumeration – one that counts all communities equally well,” said Lowenthal, who consults on The Census Project, a collaboration of business and industry associations; civil rights advocates; state and local governments; social service agencies; researchers and scientific societies; planners; foundations; and nonprofits focused on housing, child and family welfare, education, transportation, and other vital services.

“The risks include cyber-threats foreign and domestic, IT failures, weather events that have become more extreme, disinformation campaigns, and the unknown consequences of adding a new, untested citizenship question,” she said.

Congresswoman Kelly to hold Census 2020 Briefing

Congresswoman Robin Kelly invites the public to a Census 2020 Community Briefing on Monday, July 8, from 6 to 7 p.m., at the Blue Door Neighborhood Center, 756 E. 111th St., Chicago. Experts will be on hand to inform constituents about major changes to the Census, including paperless surveys that may be completed online or via mobile phone.

To RSVP or for more information, contact Outreach Coordinator April Williams-Luster at 773-321-2001 or at [email protected].

This report was supplemented by the NNPA Newswire Service

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