What You Need to Know About Census 2020 and Equity

Three things we’re tracking that could jeopardize health and equity.

By Sari Bilick and Jonathan Heller

Contiguous United States, Census 2010 by Eric Fischer

Update as of 7/20/18: Public comment on the addition of a citizenship question is open until August 7, 2018. Submit comment using Public Health Awakened’s template to oppose the citizenship question.

Update as of 3/27/18: The Commerce Department announced on March 26th that the 2020 Census will include a question on citizenship status. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced immediately that the state will sue the Trump Administration over this decision.

Update as of 3/22/18: Advocates worked successfully with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to secure sufficient funding for the 2020 Census as part of the 2018 Omnibus appropriations bill that will be approved by Congress by March 23, 2018. This is a critical step in putting census preparations back on track and addressing the growing challenges to a fair and accurate count.


As public health practitioners, we rely on the important work of the U.S. Census Bureau to provide us with accurate, wholly representative data of who’s living in the United States. When the accuracy of this data is at risk, we lose the basic ability to keep track of health and intervene on behalf of better health outcomes. As the U.S. Census Bureau has been forced to grapple with resource limitations, we’ve had to pay more attention to how undercounting affects program funding and congressional representation in our government.

The communities that are traditionally undercounted in the Census include people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with limited English, and other marginalized groups. Undercounting communities affects hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding, congressional seats, and state and local districting, thereby shifting the balance of power.

As the 2020 Census gets closer, we are paying attention to 3 issues that will likely have huge impacts on the information collected and will further inequities:

  1. Underfunding, undercounting
  2. Adding a citizenship question, furthering fear
  3. Limiting race and ethnicity options, ignoring complex identities

Underfunding, undercounting

The 2020 Census has been drastically underfunded and is behind schedule. Normally, funding is increased in the final years before the Census, however the Trump Administration cut the Obama Administration’s 2017 recommendations by 10%. The 2018 funding has not increased from the previous year. This is all in the face of rolling out an extensive online Census that will be significantly more expensive than past years. This has led to delays and cuts. For example, there will be only one test site for the full dry run (Rhode Island) rather than the 3 that were originally planned. This will limit the ability to count the hard-to-count populations and profoundly affect the Census accuracy.

Adding a citizenship question, furthering fear

The Department of Justice has requested that the Census Bureau add questions about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Recent reports suggest that high-level Trump Administration officials are behind this request with the intention to skew the census for political gain. Asking questions about citizenship status may mean that many immigrants (whether undocumented or not) will not fill out the entire Census due to fears that their information will be handed over to other government agencies, putting them and their families at risk. While the Census Bureau is legally required to protect the information collected in the Census, these fears are not without merit. During World War II, the Census Bureau was involved in rounding up Japanese-Americans and sending them to internment camps. Additionally, undercounting immigrant populations will have a profound effect on congressional districts as well as how federal funds are distributed.

Limiting race and ethnicity options, ignoring complex identities

There has been a decades long effort by advocates to combine the race and ethnicity questions on the Census and to add more categories to better represent the many identities we hold. Under the Obama Administration, many of these changes were recommended for the 2020 Census. However, under the Trump Administration, the Census Bureau announced that these recommendations are not moving forward. There is a wealth of research (including research by the Census Bureau itself) that supports the need to update and combine the race and ethnicity questions. By holding on to outdated understandings of race and ethnicity, the Census will ignore the changing and complex racial makeup of this country.

How do changes to the Census get made?

  1. The Census Bureau makes decisions about changes to the Census. Currently, the Census Bureau does not have a Director and a controversial figure just withdrew his name to be Deputy Director.
  2. Those changes must fall within standards set by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB is headed by Mick Mulvaney who is likely to not be supportive of any changes that advance equity. Mulvaney is a Tea Party Conservative who wants to cut funding for vital services such as social security, medical research, and diabetes treatment.
  3. Changes are then sent to Congress, by the end of March this year. Congress can directly legislate changes to the Census, though this is rarely used. Usually, Congress just makes recommendations to OMB.
  4. Final decisions about the Census are then in the hands of the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. National groups advocating to increase the budget and not include the citizenship question are targeting Ross in their lobbying efforts.

How some are protecting the Census count

The national organization leading much of the advocacy work for an accurate census is the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. In 12 states — including CA, NY, MI, NC, MS, and TX — there are state tables coordinating efforts to reach hard-to-count populations.

Additionally, some states use state funding to supplement Census counts in hard-to-count populations. If your state has these efforts, they could be a lobbying target. In California, private foundations also supplement Census counts and this could be a strategy to pursue elsewhere.

The Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program updates the master address file. If someone is not in the file, they will not be contacted for the Census. Advocates can let local governments know they want them to participate in LUCA, that they are watching, and point them to resources (e.g., grants) to help them fund their updates.

With so many things happening politically right now, the 2020 Census may not bubble up as the most dramatic issue to focus on. However, the questions asked and who participates will have implications for years to come. We’re keeping our eyes on this issue, and we encourage you to do so as well!