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2020 Census may have undercounted Black Americans, new analyses say

An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a US resident.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Two new analyses suggest the 2020 Census may have undercounted Black people at a significantly higher rate than usual, raising concerns about whether minority communities could lose out on fair representation and funding over the next 10 years.

The Census Bureau has not yet released data that will allow comparisons of 2020 Census results with earlier estimates to assess the survey’s accuracy. But a simulation comparing its estimates for 2020 with results from 2010 indicates that the country’s Black population could have been undercounted at a rate up to three times higher than in 2010. And a second report suggests the undercount of Black children could be as much as 10 times higher than a decade ago.

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If the analyses are borne out, the higher undercounts could have profound implications for a wide array of federally funded services, including Medicaid and Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), highway planning and construction, Section 8 housing vouchers, Head Start, and other programs.

“This might be our greatest undercount since 1960 or 1950,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, which sued the bureau last year to stop the count from ending early.

Even in the best of times, the census tends to overcount some populations and undercount others, with the highest undercounts among minorities, renters, low-income people, and children. But the 2020 Census was fraught with challenges, including Trump administration efforts to add a citizenship question, the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters, and legal battles over the count’s end date. All of these raised concerns among experts about whether the undercounts would be more significant this time.

“It was a perfect storm for an undercount on multiple levels,” said Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Michigan Democrat. Many people in poor and minority communities are already reluctant to respond to questions about their household members, a problem that was exacerbated by the additional challenges, she said. “I’m hopeful that the official numbers are not as low as the ones that the analysts are putting out, but the numbers that we’ve seen from these analysts are disturbing.”

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The simulation, conducted by Connie Citro, a senior scholar at the Committee on National Statistics at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, presents three possibilities for a net undercount for people who checked Black and no other race, based on the bureau’s low, middle and high independent population estimates released in December. Citro calculated an undercount of between 3.24 percent and 7.25 percent, compared with a 2.3 percent net undercount for that group in 2010.

For people who checked Black in combination with other races, Citro’s analysis found a range between a 0.28 percent overcount and a 4.36 percent undercount, compared with a 1.1 percent undercount for that group in 2010.

The full extent of the survey’s undercounts and overcounts will become clearer next year when the bureau releases what is known as its modified race file, a tally that reassigns people who marked “some other race” alone into Black and non-Black categories. A post-enumeration survey, conducted by the bureau after each decennial census, will further assess the accuracy of the 2020 count.

In the meantime, Citro looked at how the bureau reallocated people who filled out “some other race” alone in 2010, then applied those ratios to the 2020 Census’s race and ethnicity data, which came out in August — adjusting for the fact that the number of people who marked that category increased in 2020.

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While her analysis is only a simulation, “It gives a clue that is backed up with other clues,” Citro said.

“It would be surprising if this census did not have more errors than 2010 and 2000,” Citro said, referring to the challenges of 2020. “They did an outstanding job with the hand they were dealt, but it was not a good hand to be dealt.”

The bureau said it is too early to draw conclusions about the survey’s accuracy. “The data to do that are just not available,” said Eric Jensen, the bureau’s senior technical expert for demographic analysis. “Any attempt to do that at this time would just be an approximation.”

Noting that more respondents marked “some other race” in the 2020 Census than in 2010 , Jensen said, “That’s why we want to be really careful and make sure that we are using 2020 data for doing that process.”

An independent report released last month by the American Statistical Association said its experts did not have enough information to determine the quality of the 2020 Census.