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The Morning Dispatch: Grading the Census
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The Morning Dispatch: Grading the Census

An internal check finds the COVID-complicated count likely missed the mark in 14 states.

Happy Monday! Your Morning Dispatchers are incredibly grateful last night’s thunderstorms wiped away the near record-high heatwave D.C. experienced this weekend. Thank you as well to Willis Carrier, for inventing air conditioning 120 years ago. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed Russian forces completed their “liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on Friday, taking control of the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Ukraine has not yet confirmed the complete fall of the southeastern port city; Russian state media reported 2,439 Ukrainian soldiers holding the steel plant surrendered last week, many of whom were taken to a former penal colony as prisoners. President Joe Biden on Saturday signed into law the $40 billion aid package for Ukraine passed by Congress last week, and finance ministers of the Group of 7 nations agreed to provide $19.8 billion to support Ukraine’s economy over the coming months.

  • District Judge Robert Summerhays of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction on Friday blocking the Biden administration from moving forward with its planned termination of Title 42, the pandemic-era immigration policy that allowed officials to quickly turn away migrants at the United States’ southern border. The administration had planned to lift the policy today, and a Justice Department spokesman said the agency intends to appeal the decision, arguing the CDC determined the measure was “no longer warranted.”

  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded defeat Saturday as voters cast out the conservative Liberal-National Coalition (LNP) after nine years in favor of Anthony Albanese and the progressive Labor Party. A handful of races remain too close to call, but Labor has already won enough seats in Parliament to form a coalition government, despite securing only 33 percent of the total vote, compared to the LNP’s 36 percent. 

  • The first tranche of baby formula flown to the United States under the Biden administration’s “Operation Fly Formula”—about 70,000 pounds wortharrived in Indianapolis on Sunday aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane. The White House said a second shipment—consisting primarily of formula made for children with an allergy to cow’s milk—has been sourced and will be transported to a Nestlé factory in Pennsylvania “in the coming days.”

The Census Counts Its Errors

(Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.)

Conducting an accurate census has always a burdensome undertaking. A little more than 2,000 years ago, the process forced a pregnant woman to travel miles upon miles by donkey to the small town of Bethlehem. In 1790—the United States’ first real effort to tally the population of the burgeoning country—George Washington complained some of the federal marshals galloping around the countryside counting people simply weren’t up to the task, while Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argued about how to interpret the results.

But 2020’s count was a particular challenge, and it’s showing up in the data. The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week it likely over- or undercounted 14 states by a statistically significant number in the 2020 census, compared to no statistically significant over- or undercounts in the 2010 census, and an estimated 23 in the 2000 one. (The bureau has changed exactly how it calculates these count estimates, so it’s tough to draw one-to-one comparisons.) Until the next enumeration in 2030, states’ congressional representation—and access to federal funding—may be dictated by these miscounts.

Typically, about two-thirds of Americans fill out the census on their own, reporting the details of their household as of April 1, the official census day. To reach the rest, hundreds of thousands of temporary Census Bureau employees march up and down streets knocking on doors, working around natural disasters, convincing reluctant participants, and trying to account for births, deaths, and hard-to-count people like the homeless or transient. This work is never easy, but even less so during a pandemic, as COVID-19 put a damper on people’s willingness to open their doors to potentially infectious strangers. New York City officials, for example, had to tell doormen to quit shutting census workers out of apartment buildings over COVID-19.

The pandemic also scattered people just as the count got started, so the college student sent home or urban office worker escaping to a rural getaway during lockdowns could easily have been counted in the wrong place, or twice, or not at all. Political wrangling—the Trump administration fought unsuccessfully to include a citizenship question and successfully to limit extra count time—also sucked up the bureau’s resources and scrambled its plans. Follow-up counts that usually end in July stretched until October, and the bureau blew through its data crunching deadlines, with state population data due in December 2020 not delivered until April 2021.

With all that going on, it’s a minor miracle the bureau completed its work at all, reporting that 331,449,281 people lived in the country in mid-2020. “[The] staff who were running this show just simply did an unusually good job of using the resources they had available to get this done,” Kenneth Prewitt—Director of the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001—told The Dispatch. But the effort was far from flawless.

After the decennial census is completed, the bureau checks its work with a Post-Enumeration Survey [PES], re-counting residents of a representative sample of 10,000 census blocks. The PES is vulnerable to some of the same challenges of the full census—plus the risk that analysts improperly extrapolate from the smaller data set—but it’s a manageable way to follow up without double checking the whole country.

Working from the results of this PES, the bureau admitted last week it undercounted the populations of Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas by between 2 and 5 percent, while overcounting Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Utah by between 2 and 7 percent. This follows the bureau’s March report that the 2020 census followed a longstanding trend of undercounting black people (by 3.3 percent), Latinos (4.99 percent), and Native Americans (5.64 percent), and overcounting white people (1.64 percent) and Asian people (2.62 percent). Pew Research polling suggests black and Latino adults are more likely than white adults to think that filling out the census will harm them, less likely to think it’ll benefit them, and less likely to open the door to a census worker.

“No census is perfect,” Census Bureau head Robert Santos said last week. Some of this cycle’s discrepancies can likely be attributed to natural disasters, and COVID-19 surges affecting locales differently at the time of the count. The Trump administration’s maneuvering over the census may have ironically inspired more Democrats to make sure they filled out their forms, giving blue states a boost. There’s also the different choices states made about promoting census participation—Mississippi spent about $400,000, for example, while California allocated a whopping $187 million. “The states that spent money did better than the ones that didn’t spend,” Prewitt said. “We should not be creating a census where you can buy the outcome.”

The flaws have consequences, and not just for a horde of disappointed demographers. The census count of state populations determines how many House seats each state gets, and it looks like the overcounts allowed Rhode Island and Minnesota to keep congressional seats they shouldn’t have, while undercounts likely deprived Florida and Texas of additional representation. Last week’s determination won’t have any effect on state maps; they’re based on the original census count and don’t change for updated estimates. Census numbers also help allocate about $1.5 trillion in federal money each year, though there’s more wiggle room there for jurisdictions to appeal to update their population counts. Many other decisions—emergency evacuation plans, deciding where to build a highway or grocery store, city council seats—also rely on accurate census data, leading undercounted populations to get proportionately less of those basic resources.

“Texas Republican leaders knew our state was at risk of an undercount in the 2020 census but failed to do anything about it,” Texas Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey claimed Friday. “As a result, Texas communities will grapple with insufficient funding, misallocated resources, and inadequate political representation for the next decade.” The state decided not to spend much promoting the census and encouraging residents to fill it out in 2020, until it launched a last-minute $15 million ad campaign in September of that year.

Knock on wood, the 2030 census won’t be taking place in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic—but census designers are already thinking about how to improve it. Prewitt said the bureau hopes to make more use of existing administrative records and buy information on people who don’t fill out from databases—though that will likely stoke additional privacy concerns. “We’re not going out and knocking on the door five or six times if we can go to the administrative records and in three minutes—or three seconds—fill in the data,” Prewitt said. Bureau officials are still debating how to build trust in new census methods, Prewitt said, but “the 2030 census will look less like the 2020 census than the 2020 census looks like the 1890 census.”

Worth Your Time

  • With the United States surpassing one million deaths attributed to COVID-19, Alicia Wittmeyer collected dozens of stories from readers about their last moments with loved ones who succumbed to the virus. Because of the restrictions hospitals implemented during the pandemic, many of these final exchanges came over text or email. “These [messages] are difficult to read: deeply moving, devastating in their intimacy, profoundly human,” she writes in the New York Times. “What makes them so effective, I think, in bringing home the reality of one million dead from Covid is not that the texts make each person more vivid to us, although they do. It’s that they make their deaths more vivid.” In one instance, hospitalized 31-year-old Lyle Hobart received a message from his mom, asking him how he was doing and letting him know she couldn’t wait until he was back home. “Yup just trying to get a lil better each day,” he responded. “[And] yes, me neither 😊.”

  • Roger Angell, the greatest baseball writer who ever lived, died on Friday at the age of 101. As Joe Posnanski marveled recently, Angell “never ran out of words” about America’s pastime—and his love for the game knew no bounds. “A box score is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports,” he wrote in a 1997 essay for The New Yorker. “Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment—ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay—and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of Don Giovanni and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Friday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah dive into the defamation trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, discuss Sen. Ted Cruz’s win at the Supreme Court, ask whether the Fifth Circuit destroyed the Securities and Exchange Commission, analyze a case against Alaska Airlines, and more. 

  • And on Friday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Jonah, and Declan discuss the Buffalo shooting and how the Great Replacement Theory maps onto our current political divides. Plus: How much blame does the Biden administration deserve for the baby formula shortage? Should Republican primary elections be viewed through the prism of Trump? Is the MAGA revolution beginning to eat its own? And what wasn’t worth your time last week?

  • In Friday’s Uphill (🔒), Haley touches on Congress’ approval of $40 billion in aid for Ukraine and efforts to ease the baby formula shortage. Plus: Notes on red flag laws in the wake of Buffalo, and income requirements for the Supplemental Security Income program. 

  • Only Jonah can meander seamlessly between Bill Clinton’s favorite joke, contemporary disdain for Abraham Lincoln, and Dark MAGA. “This is the defining ethos of MAGA now,” he writes in Friday’s G-File. “Never admit fault. Claim all criticism is a conspiracy of the media, the Deep State, or this mythological Republican squish establishment that supposedly still controls everything. Any concession of fault, any acknowledgement that some criticism has validity, is cowardice and surrender.”

  • Sunday’s French Press attempts to push back on the idea that kindness and civility are tantamount to ideological surrender. “We attack positions, not people,” David argues. “We speak the truth. We seek legal equality, not legal superiority. And we never, ever forget the humanity of our opponents. As best we could, this was how we tried to navigate the triple interlocking commands of Micah 6:8—to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

  • For the Dispatch Fact Check, Alec took a look at claims about an Alabama abortion law, and Khaya broke down Dinesh D’Souza’s 2,000 Mules documentary on the 2020 election. “The basic premise of the 90-minute film is that 2,000 ‘mules’ or ‘paid professional operatives’ delivered ‘fraudulent and illegal votes’ to mail-in drop boxes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia,” she writes. “The movie, however, is riddled with errors and previously debunked claims of voter fraud, and it’s based on a faulty premise.”

  • On the site today, Chris Stirewalt takes a historical stroll through both American parties’ dalliances with populism over the last century, Charlotte breaks down two new reports detailing exactly what went wrong in America’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan, and Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad take an extensive look at what America can and should do to support anti-regime protesters in Iran. 

Let Us Know

Are there any other functions of the federal government—like the census—that you know a little about but have minimal knowledge on how they actually work? We’re always in the market for explainer ideas!

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.