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Political census games have real-world consequences

The national census count has apparently become just another political game.

The Trump administration, which initially called for extending census deadlines because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been trying to cut a month off the Census Bureau’s door-knocking efforts to complete the count. Courts say the administration has not provided an adequate explanation for the move.

The census numbers are used to reallocate U.S. House seats among the states every 10 years, and the reallocation numbers for now are due to the president by Dec. 31.

Reportedly, the administration wants to finish off the census in time for Trump to receive the apportionment information before the end of his current term on Jan. 20.

As of late last week, the legal fight over whether census takers can continue their work through October was unresolved. A federal court injunction against moving up the deadline remained in place, although the Associated Press reported that census workers say they’re being asked to cut corners and finish their work early at the expense of accuracy and reaching as many people as possible.

Meanwhile, local officials in such places as northern New Mexico are worried their jurisdictions will be shortchanged because of an incomplete census count.

As detailed in a Sept. 27 article by the Journal North’s Isabella Alves, officials and advocates in rural Rio Arriba County – one of the poorest counties in a poor state – say an undercount will reduce federal funding allocations that are based on population for critical food, health and public works programs.

Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult for census takers to communicate with remote households – on both tribal and non-tribal land – with no street addresses or stable cellphone service.

Ahtza Dawn Chavez, director of a nonprofit that provides voter information to Native American communities, said the 2010 census undercounted indigenous populations by about 5% and that the undercount could be as much as 25% this year. That could mean a loss of as much as $500 million for tribes nationwide, she said.

Lauren Reichelt, Rio Arriba’s health and human services director, says the county’s health care system could be decimated. Without accurate census data, the county can’t track such things as diabetes and heart disease, much less an epidemic. “So it makes it very difficult to use science to respond to any health issue,” she said.

Cristine Caltagirone, special projects coordinator for the county’s Economic Development Department, said Rio Arriba lost out on highway funding because low-income households were undercounted in 2010. “The consequences are going to be really dire for us,” she said of another undercount this time.

Ironically, it was Trump and his administration that pushed back the census work deadline from July 31 to Oct. 31 as the coronavirus outbreak caused suspension of field operations in March. The government also asked Congress to approve a four-month extension of the statutory deadline for delivering the apportionment numbers, from Dec. 31 to April 30.

The House approved the date change, but the Senate hadn’t acted when the administration suddenly changed course and mandated Sept. 30 as the end of the census count. It also said the apportionment data would in fact be delivered by year’s end. The moves came soon after courts blocked Trump’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count.

Last week, a federal appeals court in California ruled that stopping the count at the end of September risked undermining the Census Bureau’s mission. That ruling left in place an injunction barring early shutdown of the count. There may be additional proceedings at the appeals court level, and the Trump administration could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

That’s all very interesting, legally and politically.

But in places such as Rio Arriba County, the issues are much more concrete. The more time census workers have to do their thing, the more people in hard-to-reach places can be counted. And that means more federal money for health care, food programs and roads in a low-income region. It’s too bad that’s not the focus of everyone involved in this mess.