Census Expert: The 2020 count is the most political he’s ever seen and the implications will last decades.

February 28, 2020 - Karessa Weir

Since he was an undergraduate at MSU in 1970, Dr. Bill O’Hare has played an active role in the U.S. Census, the national effort every 10 years to count each person in the United States. The Census is more than just a data lover’s dream – it determines how federal taxes and Congressional seats are apportioned.

But the 2020 Census is unlike any of the other five censuses Dr. O’Hare has participated in – in one very particular area.

“This is the most politically partisan census than any census in my lifetime,” said Dr. O’Hare, who ran the KIDS COUNT project at the Anne E. Casey Foundation and is author of the book "The Undercount of Young Children in the U.S. Decennial Census."

O’Hare has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Science and a PhD in Sociology, all from Michigan State University. He returned to his alma mater Feb. 25 to present the lecture “Science and Politics of the 2020 Census.”

He was introduced by interim Provost Teresa A. Sullivan, a fellow MSU alumnus and also an expert in the census who recently published “Census 2020: Understanding the Issues.”

“This is a very important topic and Bill is a true national expert,” Dr. Sullivan said.

Dr. O’Hare has published several books on the census, most recently “Differential Undercounts in the U.S. Census: Who is Missed?

While he specializes on the counting of children, he said the largest issues in the 2020 census are political.

“I don’t have any doubt that partisan politics has played bigger role in the 2020 census than any time in my lifetime,” Dr. O’Hare said. “Blacks and minorities are most undercounted and they vote more for Democrats so undercounting or a bad census is good for Republicans.”

That is not a new problem. In the late 1960s-70s, urban mayors protested the undercount of black men and the census bureau responded with several attempts to fix the problem.  In the 2000 census, the bureau again underwent changes to document more people.

“But all these previous changes were driven by a quest for better data not by partisan issues,” Dr. O’Hare said.

This time around, President Trump has been very open about wanting the census to include a citizenship question that would deter people who are in the country illegally from participating in the census, thus decreasing the counts of many minorities and urban residents. Although the inclusion of the citizenship question was blocked by the Supreme Court, Trump signed an executive order telling agencies to send citizenship status to the census bureau even without a request. This gives the impression that the census is seeking undocumented residents, he said.

“He has complicated communication and understanding about the entire citizenship question,” he said. “Because of partisan politics, Republicans are bound to benefit from any confusion.”

 Also regarding minorities, the Census Bureau has been testing alternatives to racial categories on the census. Many Hispanics do not see themselves as either “white” or “black” and will pick the category “some other race,” meaning that “some other race” was the second most selected race group in 2010.

From 2010 to 2017, the bureau tested many alternatives and recommended in 2017 to add Hispanic as a race category as well as adding a Mideast/Northern African category. However the Heritage Foundation mounted a letter writing campaign and the bureau dropped both categories from the 2020 Census.

Trump has also severely slashed the budget for the 2020 Census and Dr. O’Hare says decades of data show that the more money you put into the census count, the more precise and accurate data is collected.

Trump also has eliminated two of the three planned census count tests leaving only the smallest – Rhode Island – to allow the bureau to ensure their new electronic systems are working before launching the national count.

Meanwhile the head of the Census Bureau under President Obama – John Thompson – resigned in 2017. Trump’s first nominee was a Republican operative whose only connection to the census was his active role in political gerrymandering. The second nominee was a University of Texas political science who was also a redistricting expert. The department went without a head until Steve Dillingham, a veteran bureaucrat, was confirmed in 2019.

“There was a two year vacancy at a time when they desperately needed someone to go to Capital Hill and fight for more money,” O’Hare said.

Other worrisome issues for O’Hare include the lack of a promise from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to halt raids as of April 1, as they have for previous counts. There is also the misconception that non-residents aren’t allowed to apply for jobs with the census.

“The bottom line is the 2020 Census is political like it has never been before,” O’Hare said.

It’s also more technological than ever. Starting on March 12, the census bureau will start sending out letters with a 16 digit code – unique for each address – asking people to respond to the census online or by telephone. The bureau won’t send out a paper census form until four other mailings have failed to get a response. Paper census forms can’t be requested before hand so many people may give up before they actually receive a form, O’Hare said.

By the end of July, the bureau will begin analyzing the data and are required to report the results to Congress by the end of December.

 Photos by Jackie Hawthorne, College of Social Science


Bill O'Hare lecture