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Underfunding the 2020 Census Would Likely Harm a Diverse Range of Communities, Including Many in Rural America

President Trump’s latest requests for 2018 and 2019 Census Bureau funding are too low to ensure an accurate 2020 census, as I wrote recently. One point deserves further attention: an underfunded, poorly executed census could hurt a diverse range of communities, leaving them underrepresented in Congress and cutting their federal Medicaid, economic development, and child care funds.

Concerns about the accuracy of the upcoming census often focus on people of color, who face a higher risk that they will be undercounted. Less well known is that disadvantaged rural Americans and other low-income and marginalized groups are also at high risk. For any community, being undercounted not only would deprive them of fair representation in Congress and state capitols and their fair share of federal dollars, it also would distort the information that a business uses to decide where to locate or a county uses to decide whether to close a school.

We don’t know how an underfunded census would play out in 2020. But a look at past censuses with a high undercount provides important clues. The 1990 census had the biggest overall undercount of any in the last 40 years, and it’s the only one that was ever measurably less accurate than the one before it. Undercount rates in 1990 were far higher for the Hispanic (5.0 percent) and black populations (4.6 percent) than for the white population overall (0.7 percent), one Census Bureau study found, but the rate for white rural renters was similarly high (5.3 percent). (See chart.) It was even higher for American Indians on reservations (12.2 percent) and Hispanic rural renters (15.8 percent).

While non-metropolitan households in general have higher response rates without follow-up by the Census Bureau, a recent study found, intensely rural areas like remote Appalachia and Indian reservations are among the hardest to count. Homes in such areas are spread farther apart and often hidden from the main road, may not have city-style addresses, and sometimes are non-traditional living quarters, such as sheds and campers. If the Census Bureau has insufficient funding for in-person visits by census workers, more rural homes could fall through the cracks.

A newer concern for rural areas is the digital divide. The 2020 census will be the first to let households respond online, which should increase participation and limit costs, but it could also widen the gap in response rates between metropolitan and rural areas because of differences in Internet access. In 2016, 26 percent of households in rural areas lacked an Internet subscription, compared with 17 percent in metro areas, according to the Census Bureau. Bad Internet connections may also slow the work of census takers in rural areas by making it harder for them to use electronic devices for address updating and collecting information from households that don't initially respond by themselves.

Many minority groups have low Internet access rates as well. A much higher share of black (22 percent), Hispanic (19 percent), and American Indian and Alaska Native (28 percent) households don’t have an Internet subscription compared to non-Hispanic white (12 percent) and Asian (7 percent) households. Low-income and elderly individuals also tend to lack access. The Census Bureau needs adequate funding of non-Internet-based efforts such as initial outreach, telephone-based response options, and in-person visits to bridge the digital divide for all of these populations.

Compounding these concerns, funding problems forced the Census Bureau to cancel its main field tests of census methods in rural and suburban areas in 2017 and 2018. That leaves the bureau with little chance to detect and correct flaws in its many procedures and systems. For example, the Census Bureau plans to use administrative data, including from the U.S. Postal Service, to remove vacant addresses from the list of unresponsive homes that census takers will visit. But failure to fully test and fine-tune this new method for rural, suburban, and urban differences might lead the Census Bureau to misidentify some buildings as vacant and neglect to follow up with them.

All Americans have a stake in an accurate census, and the President and Congress need to provide the resources that will ensure that the 2020 census doesn’t leave any communities behind.