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How Census Undercount Can Negatively Affect Communities Across The U.S.


Roughly 4 in 10 households in the U.S. have not responded yet to the census. That's about 56 million homes across the country. So this week, the Census Bureau started sending its workers across the country to start knocking on doors. The bureau says it's going to end that effort a month early. And so to talk about who might be left uncounted, Jeri Green joins us now. She has worked on this issue for decades, first from inside the Census Bureau and now with the National Urban League.


JERI GREEN: Hi. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: So the Census Bureau now says that counting is going to end at the end of September. Under this new schedule, who is most likely to be left out?

GREEN: Well, we know that, disproportionately, communities of color generally fall, in large numbers, disproportionately, as I said, in this non-response universe - that is, a number of people who did not respond to the census or self-respond, as the Census Bureau would say it, and are relying on a door knock to come. We know that from previous censuses, and we know, given the rates of response thus far, that maybe as many as 40% of the Black population might fall in that number.

SHAPIRO: Why is that? Historically, why are people of color less likely to be counted?

GREEN: Well, there's been, especially now, a great deal of distrust, historic distrust, in federal governmental institutions. We know that particularly in times like the COVID-19 pandemic, people are living - probably doubling up in households who may not have a place to stay. And so people don't want to put on their leases, for instance. They don't want to share information about what - how their household is composed. They're immigrants. In fact, the Trump administration just, in fact, a year or so ago tried to put a citizenship question on the census questionnaire asking people what was their citizenship status. So there's a fear by our immigrant population, undocumented and documented, that there'll be retributions if they fill out the census form.

SHAPIRO: What are the real-world consequences of being undercounted? If one community is counted less in the census, what does that community end up getting less of?

GREEN: You will be cheated out of a representative democracy. I need to say that, Ari. Based on the census count, over a trillion dollars is allocated to local jurisdictions and states every year. That's - so you know, you can look at those numbers, and there are, like, over 500 federal programs that provide funding to the states and localities based on census data. And if you don't get it, another community will get it because the money follows the count. It does not follow the need.

SHAPIRO: Are there steps that outside groups like yours can take that might encourage people to respond even if the Census Bureau is not doing as much as it did in the past?

GREEN: Well, we were going gangbusters. I'll tell you - our organizations across the board - we were working together across racial and ethnic lines collaboratively - the National Urban League, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the National Congress of American Indians. We did toolkits. We had canvassing plans in place. And then COVID hit. We had to pivot to utilizing social media to reach our various populations. Social media gave us an advantage in many respects because we could at least begin reaching our young people.

SHAPIRO: So how optimistic are you about the ability of these outside groups to get the job done even if the Census Bureau is going to be knocking on doors for a month less? I mean, do you think you'll be able to make up the difference?

GREEN: We are so concerned about this - that the national response rate for the census is below where it was in 2010. And we know that the biggest answer to this is encouraging people, urging people, begging people to self-respond while they can. Go on the Internet and don't wait for someone to knock on the door because given the shortages - hiring shortages that the Census Bureau has and the utter chaos that has been sold by this administration, we don't know if a knock will come.

SHAPIRO: Jeri Green is a senior census adviser with the National Urban League.

Thank you for speaking with us.

GREEN: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.