Democracy is in danger when the census undercounts vulnerable populations

Emily Klancher Merchant at The Conversation: “The 2020 U.S. Census is still two years away, but experts and civil rights groups are already disputing the results.At issue is whether the census will fulfill the Census Bureau’s mandate to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.”

The task is hardly as simple as it seems and has serious political consequences. Recent changes to the 2020 census, such as asking about citizenship status, will make populations already vulnerable to undercounting even more likely to be missed. These vulnerable populations include the young, poor, nonwhite, non-English-speaking, foreign-born and transient.

An accurate count is critical to the functioning of the U.S. government. Census data determine how the power and resources of the federal government are distributed across the 50 states. This includes seats in the House, votes in the Electoral College and funds for federal programs. Census data also guide the drawing of congressional and other voting districts and the enforcement of civil and voting rights laws.

Places where large numbers of people go uncounted get less than their fair share of political representation and federal resources. When specific racial and ethnic groups are undercounted, it is harder to identify and rectify violations of their civil rights. My research on the international history of demography demonstrates that the question of how to equitably count the population is not new, nor is it unique to the United States. The experience of the United States and other countries may hold important lessons as the Census Bureau finalizes its plans for the 2020 count.

Let’s take a look at that history….

In 1790, the United States became the first country to take a regular census. Following World War II, the U.S. government began to promote census-taking in other countries. U.S. leaders believed data about the size and location of populations throughout the Western Hemisphere could help the government plan defense. What’s more, U.S. businesses could also use the data to identify potential markets and labor forces in nearby countries.

The U.S. government began investing in a program called the Census of the Americas. Through this program, the State Department provided financial support and the Census Bureau provided technical assistance to Western Hemisphere countries taking censuses in 1950.

United Nations demographers also viewed the Census of the Americas as an opportunity. Data that were standardized across countries could serve as the basis for projections of world population growth and the calculation of social and economic indicators. They also hoped that censuses would provide useful information to newly established governments. The U.N. turned the Census of the Americas into a global affair, recommending that “all Member States planning population censuses about 1950 use comparable schedules so far as possible.” Since 1960, the U.N. has sponsored a World Census Program every 10 years. The 2020 World Census Program will be the seventh round….

Not all countries went along with the program. For example, Lebanon’s Christian rulers feared that a census would show Christians to be a minority, undermining the legitimacy of their government. However, for the 65 sovereign countries taking censuses between 1945 and 1954, leaders faced the same question the U.S. faces today: How can we make sure that everyone has an equal chance of being counted?…(More)”.