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The 2020 Census Could Inaccurately Count Hard-To-Reach Communities, Experts Say

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUTX

The 2020 Census will be the first time Americans can submit questionnaire responses entirely online, but while some are touting the high-tech change, the new approach concerns some advocates.

John C. Yang, the president and executive director of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says there hasn’t been enough time or money dedicated to testing the technology.

“On one level, the use of new technology is obviously good and should be welcomed,” Yang said. “There is a concern however, that unless this technology is tested, we will end up with an inaccurate count.”

Last year, funding uncertainty led the Census Bureau to cancel several field tests. It also postponed the opening of some of its field offices. The bureau says it may consider including those sites in testing next year, but Yang worries that won’t be enough.

“Any gap in testing and any gap in discovering deficiencies in the use of technology is most likely to affect and hit hard communities of color and other communities that are hard to reach,” he said.

On its face, the census might seem like one of the most tedious functions of the federal government, but it has major implications for our democracy. The nationwide population count, which happens every decade, affects everything from how many seats Texas gets in the U.S. House of Representatives to how much federal funding is allocated for local programs.

Here in Austin, officials are waiting to see how the new digital way of gathering data will affect a few hard-to-reach groups, including college students, the homeless and immigrants.

Austin City Demographer Ryan Robinson says college students should be counted as Austin residents, but many of them don’t know that. He notes that calculating the homeless population relies on a single count done on one night of the year. But Robinson expects it’s going to be especially hard to accurately count the immigrant population in 2020.

“Immigrant populations are often fearful of answering the census form,” Robinson said.

Robinson says in previous years, census staff have tried to communicate that they’re not interested in people’s legal status, that they simply want to count them. He says they’ve even worked with immigration enforcement to pause raids around Census Day. But, he says, with the Trump administration’s hardline rhetoric around immigration enforcement, there’s clearly a heightened sense of fear.

“Let’s imagine that you’re here in this country working without proper documentation,” he said. “You’re probably going to be fearful of a government entity that comes knocking at the door.”

Robinson questions whether a switch to online questionnaires will make immigrant families more likely to respond.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.