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Making the Census Work for Latinos

The census has persistently and significantly undercounted Latino communities, and the results of the 2020 count underscore the need for sweeping census reform.

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times en Español

The census has long struggled to count Latino communities as accurately as it counts other groups, and the 2020 census was no exception. This all points to a dire need to reform census law and policy to address both the old and new problems that plagued the 2020 count.

The reports evaluating the quality of the 2020 numbers uncovered significant undercounts in communities of color and especially of Latino communities, who were undercounted at a rate of almost 5 percent—one of the most severe undercounts. That’s more than three times the rate at which they were undercounted in 2010, and no doubt reflects the prior administration’s unprecedented meddling with the count—from Trump’s failed attempt to ask a citizenship question to his (also failed) plan to rush the Bureau’s timelines for collecting household data and processing the results so he could edit the numbers before he left office. 

Undercounts greatly undercut the usefulness of the census’s results and harm the basic functions they are used for. The census happens only once every ten years. Its results determine how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives, how state and local governments draw voting districts, and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed every year for basic needs like food assistance, transportation, and healthcare.

As the events of the last census show, existing law leaves too much room for political actors to override the best scientific practices and manipulate the census. At the same time, it leaves too little room for the Census Bureau to innovate its design and operations to combat enduring problems like racially discriminatory undercounts. 

A priority for reform, as we propose in a new Brennan Center report, is to limit future presidential interference. Establishing the Census Bureau as its own executive agency would be a significant first step. The bureau is currently housed under the Department of Commerce, which allows political appointees like the Commerce Secretary to override the judgment of career scientists on the president’s behalf. As its own agency, the Census Bureau would instead be led by a director with final decision-making authority over the count. In addition, removing the president from the apportionment process so that the director of the Census Bureau delivers the apportionment numbers directly to Congress would cut off another avenue of potential interference.

Congress should also bar untimely and untested additions to the census questionnaire. The Census Bureau would then be required to follow more transparent processes for adding questions, such as providing an opportunity for public input on newly proposed questions and publishing studies assessing people’s willingness to respond to those questions. This process could prevent future attempts at including last-minute questions to the census, as was the case with the citizenship question in 2020.And Congress must push the Biden administration to update how people can describe their racial and ethnic identities on the census. The Census Bureau’s current approach is confusing and produces less accurate data than it should. 

In 2020 as in previous decades, the census asked people first to report their ethnicity, checking off whether they are of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” It then asked them to select their race from six categories (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race).

Because many Latino people do not identify with any of the listed racial categories, they frequently describe themselves as “some other race.” In 2020, nearly 94 percent of those who selected only “some other race” were of Latino origin. That can make it harder for people to use census data to protect their civil rights under federal law because the law often requires knowing a group’s racial identification in order to be enforced. 

Census Bureau research has found that combining the race and ethnicity questions into one would be less confusing and lead more people to respond with their racial and ethnic identities than separate questions do. That would make the data for Latino people more consistent and complete as a combined question would allow people to identify with more than one category — for example, Hispanic and White.

The reforms would help free the Census Bureau from recurrent problems it has never squarely addressed and enable it to respond to future problems more effectively. The result will be a count that provides a more accurate picture of our growing and diversifying nation. That is the census our democracy deserves.