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Census Bureau deadline to end count temporarily halted

Posted at 10:42 PM, Sep 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-08 10:45:20-04

WASHINGTON, D.C. - You may have gotten one in the mail or a knock on the door: for months, the Census Bureau has counted every person living in the United States.

Even the homeless in a rural state like Montana get counted.

"In the last month, we finished and submitted a census for 70 homeless people," said Carley Tuss, with St. Vincent de Paul homeless services in Great Falls, Montana.

This year, though, an accurate census count could be in jeopardy.

"The census is not a dry statistical exercise," said Thomas Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice, pushing in court for an accurate census count.

Because of the coronavirus, the Census Bureau extended the deadline for in-person counting, setting it for the end of October. Then, things changed.

"Suddenly, then, on August 3, the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau abruptly and without explanation said that they were going to go back to the original timeline," Wolf said.

The Census Bureau now plans to stop counting at the end of September, a full month earlier than planned.

What's more, the deadline for processing those tens of millions of census responses, set for the spring of next year, got pushed up to the end of this year.

However, a federal judge temporarily halted the plan, until there can be a court hearing later this month.

"If you cut the time short, you don't have enough time to collect the data. You don't have enough time to process the data," Wolf said, "and then you end up with real problems."

Those problems could include under-counting communities of color, like African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

In response to our questions, the Census Bureau referred us to a statement from their director, Steven Dillingham, which says, in part, "We are taking steps and adapting our operations to make sure everyone is counted while keeping everyone safe."

Census maps, which are updated continuously, show that it can be a struggle in some states.

Montana, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and New Mexico rank at the bottom of the list, with only about three-quarters of households responding.

That can end up costing those states billions of dollars for highways, food stamps, school programs, and student loans.

For example, Florida had one of the country's worst response rates during the 2010 census, and it cost the state tens of billions in federal dollars.

"When we don't participate, the money goes elsewhere," said Jonathan Evans, the city manager of Riviera Beach, Florida.

In the meantime, multiple federal court cases are challenging – among other things-- the census schedule and the Trump administration's effort to exclude undocumented migrants from the count.

Whether those cases are resolved before the census count ends remains to be seen.