Why the 2020 Census Could Be a Problem for Cities

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This is a guest post by Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas, president of the National League of Cities.

This Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from the U.S. Census Bureau’s interim director. He provided an overview of how preparations for the 2020 decennial census are going and offered some insight into the last minute decision to include a citizenship question on the Bureau’s list of finalized questions to Congress.

The decision ultimately came at the direction of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and bucked the Bureau’s tradition of meticulously testing such drastic changes, and the better judgement of both career Bureau employees and nonpartisan experts.

Unsurprisingly, the situation has been quickly politicized in Washington, D.C. But in places like Little Rock, we are more concerned with the practical repercussions, which could have major implications for the nation’s 19,000 cities, towns and villages.

Few understand the vast cost and scope involved with planning and executing an accurate count of every one of the hundreds of millions of people living in the United States. Even fewer understand the importance of the census to municipalities, which rely on accurate census data for everything from infrastructure and public health planning to districting, business development, and determining the allocation of federal funding across states and local governments.

For municipal leaders, there are concerns with every census cycle. But the 2020 census is shaping up to be especially challenging.

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Because the census relies on self-reporting, achieving accurate results depends on a foundation of public trust. But today, trust in government is especially low. Combined with an increasingly partisan and skeptical public, as well as heightened data privacy concerns, experts anticipate increases in “unusual respondent” activities – like providing false or incomplete information, or going to drastic measures to avoid census enumerators altogether – as well historic lows in self-reporting rates, which could drop to as low as 55 percent, according to the Washington Post.

The addition of a last-minute citizenship question imposes an unplanned element in the middle of a massive and complicated process for no discernable reason — and for what benefit? Data from other census sources have sufficiently served the Justice Department’s VRA-related needs for decades.

Much attention has been paid to cities with high immigrant and mixed-status households, but this last-minute addition will undoubtedly have implications for cities of all shapes and sizes. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that for every one percent decline in household self-reporting, the cost of non-response follow up procedures will increase by $55 million. In other words, the Bureau may find itself spending more toward remedying the impact of an untested question and forced to route limited resources away from traditionally hard to count small and rural communities.

Looking at my home state, during the 2010 census, fewer than 60 percent of households returned their census forms through the mail in many census tracts along the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas. We also know that there was a massive undercount in many “hard to count” tracts right in Little Rock and North Little Rock, including young children, college students, renters and many in our immigrant communities.

Given these challenges, we need to focus on getting more people counted in 2020 — not fewer. But, the addition of a new, untested citizenship question jeopardizes our goal of executing a successful and cost-effective census and creates unnecessary challenges for local leaders who rely on accurate data. America’s city leaders are in the business of building stronger communities, not playing partisan games.

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We live with these numbers for 10 years, and there’s only one chance to get an accurate count.

That’s why this is not a red versus blue issue: 161 Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan mayors agree; 17 States agree; U.S. Census Bureau directors and staff from various administrations of both parties agree; academic and business leaders agree; and the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors agree.

This question will only drive up the cost of the census and reduce the quality of the data on our cities. In the absence of strong federal leadership, local officials will continue to provide what leadership we can to ensure an accurate count of our communities and America’s cities.

Mark_Stodola_200x250.jpgAbout the Author: Mark Stodola is the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and president of the National League of Cities. Stodola has served as mayor of Little Rock since January 2007. During his tenure, he has helped prioritize public safety as the city’s foremost obligation with a focus on various quality of life projects impacting economic development and tourism.