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Senators Call For Census Investigation After Bureau Shortens Response Deadline

A census worker mans a walk-up counting site in Greenville, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats are calling for more oversight into the 2020 U.S. Census after officials in charge of the once-a-decade population count announced they would stop collecting survey responses earlier than planned.

In a letter sent Monday, members of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee urged the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, to “assess the completeness and quality” of the census in its final stages.

“We believe that truncating data collection operations during a global pandemic could cause a massive undercount in historically hard-to-count areas, including Native American, rural, and immigrant communities,” said the letter, authored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., ranking member of the subcommittee.

Earlier this month, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau would be ending field data collection on Sept. 30, one month earlier than originally scheduled. U.S. households now need to submit the survey by that date, rather than Oct. 31.

According to the bureau, the schedule change was to “accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts” before Dec, 31, the statutory deadline by which it is required to finish all its work.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the move was criticized by advocates who expressed concern that a shorter response window could result in the undercounting of minority populations, leading to less federal funding for those communities.

Shaheen has accused the Trump administration of cutting down on the Census bureau’s collection efforts for political reasons. “I believe that this deviation in schedule is driven not by expert opinions of career Census Bureau employees but by external pressure from the White House and the Department of Commerce for perceived political gain,” she said on August 11.

The census plays a crucial role in national politics by determining how many U.S. representatives each state gets in Congress. It also determines how billions of dollars are allocated to state and local governments for spending on roads, schools, and government assistance programs like food stamps and Medicare.

“The 2020 Decennial Census will dictate apportionment of the House of Representatives for the next decade and the distribution of $1.5 trillion annually in Federal funding to states, localities, individuals, and businesses,” said the letter, co-signed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, R-Calif., and six other Democrats on the subcommittee. “We have to get it right.”

Many states have reported lower than usual response rates to the census, particularly in hard-to-reach communities. For example, the response rate is just 12.3% of households in Oglala Lakota, South Dakota, according to recent statistics.

Response rates also tend to be lower in Black and Hispanic communities, where undocumented residents may fear that filling out the survey could put them at risk of deportation.

As part of the bureau’s Non Response Follow-Up program, census takers are required to make in-person visits to non-responding households to collect additional data using electronic tablets.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center, however, found that four in 10 U.S. adults who haven’t filled out the survey would not be willing to answer their door. 

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