New York City’s Demographer-in-Chief Is Worried About the 2020 Census

Last time, it went well. This time, maybe not. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

If this country’s enemies wanted to do insidious, long-term, and possibly irreparable damage to our democracy, they could do worse than hack the Census Bureau. They don’t need to, though: The Trump administration is doing it for them. The political attack on the agency — funding cuts, delayed preparations for the 2020 count, and the director’s resignation already put demographers and statisticians on alert. Now, the Commerce Department has wound the clock back to the 1950s and will resume asking participants whether or not they are U.S. citizens. The result will be deliberate ignorance and self-inflicted chaos.

Of New York’s 8.6 million residents, 3.2 million are foreign born, and of those, 46 percent are noncitizens. I trust those numbers because I got them from Joseph Salvo, the director of the Population Division in New York’s planning department, and I believe he knows what he’s talking about. That’s how government is supposed to work: knowledgeable people, working together, collect reliable information and pass it on to the public and their elected officials so they can make educated decisions.

Instead, the administration is embracing a policy of fuzziness. As a private citizen, Donald Trump considered facts negotiable, and even before he took office it was clear that he would translate his personal disdain for hard information into official policy.

“This is a new era,” Salvo says. “The challenges we’re facing right now are much more difficult than what we’ve faced in the past. Everyone’s already much more concerned about privacy and misused data,” which makes people more hesitant to fill out a government questionnaire. “Add to that the citizenship question: that is an additional hurdle.”

Though he tiptoes around placing blame, Salvo is alarmed by the prospect of baked-in error. “City agencies rely on our data, and if that’s not accurate, we pay a price in decisions that are not well informed.” For example, when health officials are trying to gauge the severity of an epidemic, he says, “they have a numerator — the number of cases — but they need to know the denominator. The rate can set of an alarm bell, or not, and if we have a massive under-enumeration, we get rates that are out of kilter with the situation on the ground.”

In theory, the more information the Census Bureau has about people, the more powerful its data. But asking about citizenship status is the opposite of a request for information; it is an invitation to hide — to cower and be undercounted. That’s why New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has said he will lead a multistate coalition to sue the federal government over the citizenship question.

That question doesn’t just affect undocumented immigrants, but also their families, friends, employers, and classmates — anyone who fears that filling out a form could have catastrophic results for someone they know. If a family of five lives at a certain address, and one of its members lacks a visa, the Census will likely wind up with the statistical impression that nobody lives there at all. Multiply that panic by entire buildings, blocks, and neighborhoods, and you wind up with a more or less meaningless count. The Census Bureau will try to assure a jittery public that answering its questions won’t trigger a deportation, an IRS audit, or an arrest. But how effective can a federal agency’s (or New York’s) outreach program be when it conflicts with an openly vindictive administration?

These are not just New York problems. Justifiably suspicious immigrants are spread out across the country, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Excluding them from the count has an impact on us all. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates a complete enumeration of the people in order to determine how many congressional representatives each state gets. The immediate goal of an iffy Census is political, as my colleague Margaret Hartmann made clear: Undercounting immigrants and urban populations will give Republicans an edge in apportioning representatives and drawing electoral districts.

But the count serves innumerable functions. When pharmaceutical companies calculate how many flu vaccines to ship, or a city decides to build a new school, a hospital hires a geriatrician to serve an aging base, an insurance company calculates premiums, a cable provider decides to upgrade a city’s service, a police department announces that the murder rate is low and dropping — each of these entities need to know how many people live where.

In between the decennial headcounts, the Census Bureau also conducts the annual American Community Survey, sending out detailed questionnaires to a small number of randomly selected households. Responding is mandatory, the bureau’s website states, because “As part of a sample, you represent many other people.” But how many people? That number affects the legitimacy of every policy decision downstream. A city that doesn’t know how big it is, or how fast it’s growing, can’t be sure where to run buses or whether it’s going to need another sewage-treatment plant. Statistics can get personal, too. When your doctor tells you that the condition you have is rare, when you qualify for a Section 8 housing voucher, or your local library starts stocking books in Tagalog, you have the Census to thank.

These are tough days for data. Hard information permeates society and controls much of our lives, and because of that it is regularly stolen, twisted, abused, and delegitimized. In such a climate, the government’s numbers must be the gold standard of integrity. There will be no marches in support of that idea, no cardboard signs reading “Save Our Census” or “Count Us All.” Yet precise numbers matter because, in a democracy, the government allocates resources according to where they’re needed, rather than, say, because a high-ranking official has a nemesis in one state or a second home in another. The Census is the currency of fairness. Corrupting it is an ominous sign.

NYC’s Demographer-in-Chief Is Worried About the 2020 Census