Last Updated on March 19, 2022 by BVN

Breanna Reeves |

An analysis released by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed the 2020 Census undercounted Black people, Hispanic people and Native Americans and overcounted White and Asian populations.

The report was released on March 10 and estimated that approximately 18.8 million were not correctly counted in the census. Counting for the 2020 Census came with unforeseen obstacles beginning with former President Donald Trump’s citizenship question conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns across the U.S. that made an already challenging process more difficult.

“Today’s results show statistical evidence that the quality of the 2020 Census total population count is consistent with that of recent censuses. This is notable, given the unprecedented challenges of 2020,” said Director Robert L. Santos in a statement. “But the results also include some limitations — the 2020 Census undercounted many of the same population groups we have historically undercounted, and it overcounted others.”

Historically, Black, Hispanic and Indigeneous populations have been undercounted due to circumstances that are overlooked or not considered such as living in housing units, multiple families living in a single household or having limited access to high speed Internet, which was utilized more during the 2020 Census count due to the pandemic. 

The 2020 Census undercounted Black people, Hispanic people and Native Americans and overcounted White and Asian populations. (census.gov).

“One of the things that was different for the 2020 Census was they did a lot of the collection online and that’s an approach that isn’t going to reach a great deal of people,” Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute California (PPIC), said. McGhee explained that the census initially planned to conduct in-person counts, follow up with people and send paper versions out to hard-to-count communities, however, the pandemic halted those plans.

What makes a community hard-to-count?

Black, Hispanic and Indigenous populations are largely identified as hardest-to-count by the Census Bureau. In California, a community or population (census tract) is defined as hardest-to-count if they have a high score based on 14 demographic, housing and socioeconomic variables outlined on the CA-HTC Index. Some of the index factors include:

  • % of households without high-speed internet access
  • % of households that contain non-families
  • % of populations that are foreign-born
  • % of population under five years old
  • % of the population with income below 150% of poverty level ($20,385)

California’s Census 2020 final report noted that communities that are measured as having higher index values are likely to have greater challenges with counting than tracts with lower index values.

While it is unknown exactly how much of that 18.8 million of the undercounted population are California residents, in March 2019, the PPIC published a fact sheet noting that an undercount could affect California’s political representations as a result of redistricting

“The decennial census is the sole basis for reallocating the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Given recent population trends, California is likely to maintain its 53 seats. But if the census does a poor job of reaching hard-to-count populations and immigrant communities, it could miss more than 1.6 million residents—and the state could easily lose a seat,” the fact sheet pointed out.

Following the 2020 Census, California did lose a congressional seat in the House — the first time in the state’s history. California now has 52 seats. With the loss of a seat resulting in the loss of a vote in the Electoral College, the state will also receive less in federal funding. California also experienced a slower growth rate of 5.9% since 2010, a growth rate lower than the national rate of 7.4%.

Following the 2020 Census, for the first time in the state’s history. California lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (source: ushouse.gov).

“The most direct [and] immediate impact is on representation. The main purpose of the census is to figure out how to draw the representational districts all across the country,” McGhee explained. “And communities that are undercounted are going to be underrepresented in the districts that get drawn compared to communities that are [overcounted].”

Using race as an indicator in targeting hard-to-count communities

With the ongoing pandemic and lockdown occurring during the census count, California officials and community organizations pivoted and changed strategies to conduct outreach to communities to get the word out about the census. With door knocking and on the ground campaigning restricted, community organizations collaborated with media across the state to find new ways to reach communities deemed hard-to-count.

Similar to how the state has disseminated COVID-19 and vaccine information using trusted messengers across communities of color, Voice Media worked with Black media organizations across the state and created the Mapping Black California (MBC) Census Lab to work on community engagement for a complete count.

MBC Project Manager and Partnership Lead Candice Mays explained that before this project, she knew the census was important and that it was done every 10 years, but this campaign informed her more about how many important decisions are made based on the census count such as allotted funding for programs and services within communities.

“The impact of undercounting Black communities is that it’s just another way, and probably the most important way, for Black people not to receive the services they need in their communities,” Mays said. “And so, that’s why it’s important for people in Black communities to count because when they’re undercounted, the government assumes fewer people live in an area, and then as a result, they get less money.” 

The map was designed to “more effectively target the hardest-to-count Black population in California with relevant messaging that [would] inform, educate and motivate Black people towards participating in the 2020 Census.” The map was useful in helping media partners decide where to disseminate information for Black communities and analyze the likelihood of a community’s participation in the census.

Insert image 3 here

The California Black Hard-to-Count Map displays hard-to-count tracts and gives details about how much of the area’s population may be at risk of an undercount (Image courtesy of Mapping Black California).

The team created the California Black Hard-to-Count Map (BLK-CA-HTC) which displays census tracts in California that are each assigned a Black Hard-to-Count Score along 15 indicators, similar to the factors utilized by the state’s hard-to-count index, but recognizes and includes indicators associated with new barriers to counting. Another major difference between MBC’s criteria and the state’s is the fact the indicators were measured along one race. 

Chuck Bibbs, Digital Director and Maps & Data Lead, explained that the map was designed in anticipation of a low participation among the Black population due to several reasons that were measured along the 15 indicators.

Utilizing data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey, the team calculated the BLK-CA-HTC score for California’s 8,057 census tracts. With data collected for each of the 15 variables, the variables were then sorted from high to low using a scoring system with a high value being assigned to tracts with the highest Black unemployment rates and a zero being assigned to tracts below the California Black unemployment tract median.

Mining specific data for more strategic outreach 

“The mind behind the data decides how it is used and how it is visualized. And oftentimes, the people who are doing data visualizations, and who are mining data for different types of maps and dashboards do not look like us,” Mays said. “So then it’s not taking into account that this group of people should need to have their own map or that group or that group.”

Mays believes that there were more strategic ways to use data that would have been beneficial to communities of color such as creating different hard-to-count maps that are organized by race/ ethnicity rather than making just one hard-to-count map.

“And by making it just one giant hard-to-count map, it’s making the presumption that all of these racial groups that are considered hard-to-count, or ethnic groups, are hard to count because of the same factors,” Mays continued. “And that’s not true. And to me, that tells me that whoever was making that map was likely not reflective of the population.”

According to the Bureau’s report, nationwide the Black population was undercounted by 3.30%, the Hispanic or Latino population had an undercount rate of 4.99%, American Indian or Alaska native population had an undercount rate of 5.64%. Comparatively, the White population had an overcount rate of 1.64% and the Asian population had an overcount of 2.62%.

McGhee explained that overcounting a population can be a result of counting someone in two different places which can happen if a person or family has multiple residences. While the PPIC estimated an undercount in California back in 2019, the census has yet to release a post-enumeration survey for specific states. 

Until more data is released regarding the undercount and overcount estimates for California, Bibbs also explained that he won’t really know how effective the process of creating the BLK-CA-HTC Map was for targeted messaging. 

Efforts to reach hard-to-count communities by the state, trusted messengers and community organizations were met with many difficulties that forced them to change outreach and messaging strategies, but McGhee believes that the targeted efforts these groups enacted and planned to do are generally good ways to reach hard-to-count communities.

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.