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Connolly Statement on House Oversight Hearing on 2020 Census

Today, Congressman Gerry Connolly, Chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee, released the following statement in advance of today’s House Oversight hearing “Reaching Hard-to-Count Communities in the 2020 Census:”

Thank you, Chairwoman Maloney, for calling this important hearing. Census Day is less than three months away, and I am concerned that the Census Bureau is not prepared to conduct a complete and accurate count of our nation’s population, particularly among hard-to-count communities.

As we all know, the decennial census is among the most important operations undertaken by the federal government. It is one of few government functions explicitly required by the Constitution. Data collected during each decennial census is used to apportion seats of the House of Representatives, redraw congressional districts, and allocate billions of dollars in federal financial assistance each year. State and local governments, as well as the private sector, use census data for planning purposes and to better serve their customers. Counting all U.S. residents accurately is crucial.

I have been concerned about the Census Bureau’s preparation for the 2020 Census since early in this decennial cycle. The Census Bureau must tackle the regular historical challenges of the decennial, such as contract management, underfunding from Congress, an increasingly diverse population, and declining response rates. For the 2020 Census, however the challenges for the Census Bureau are even greater as it relies on administrative records and will be conducting the census primarily online for the first time in history.

Under the Trump Administration, I have grown increasingly concerned that minority and immigrant communities are at serious risk of being undercounted in the 2020 Census. The intentional actions of this Administration will undoubtedly lead to an undercount that reduces minority communities’ representation in Congress and their access to federal funds.

In March 2018, Secretary Ross announced that the 2020 Census would include a citizenship question despite warnings from career Census Bureau staff that the question would significantly decrease response rates to the census form. While the Supreme Court eventually blocked the Census Bureau from adding that question to the 2020 Census, the prospect of a citizenship question increased anxiety about Census participation among hard-to-count populations.

Early last year, the Census Bureau published a study that identified several barriers to participation in hard-to-count communities. For example, some people surveyed expressed fear that census information would be shared with other government agencies (24% of respondents were “very” or “extremely” concerned about this); fear that answers would not be confidential (28% were very or extremely concerned); and fear that the census would be used to identify noncitizens or people without documentation (10% believed this and 37% were not sure).

The Census Bureau is not doing enough to ease these fears, clarify these misperceptions, and encourage participation in hard-to-count communities. For example, the Bureau has not met targets for hiring partnership specialists who serve as critical liaisons between the Census Bureau and local communities. They form relationships with government, private sector, nonprofit, faith-based organizations, and other trusted partners in order to encourage Census participation in hard-to-count communities. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Census Bureau failed to meet its initial goal of hiring 1,501 partnership specialists by June 30, 2019, and then missed a revised target to hire these specialists by September 1, 2019. The delay in hiring these important specialists reduces the time available for them to conduct outreach, develop key relationships, and encourage participation in hard-to-count communities ahead of the 2020 Census.

According to GAO, the Census Bureau has also experienced delays in hiring for its early operations, raising concerns about hiring for peak operations. This hiring gap is especially concerning in today’s tight labor market, which may make recruiting and hiring temporary workers for the 2020 Census more difficult. In particular, the Census Bureau failed to hire more than 9,000 of the 40,000 temporary employees needed to update addresses in advance of the 2020 Census. GAO found that hiring shortfalls were caused by delays in background checks and high attrition rates during the lengthy onboarding process. The Census Bureau will likely face this problem again, during peak 2020 Census operations when the Bureau will need to hire nearly 500,000 temporary workers, including almost 250,000 enumerators needed to go door-to-door as part of non-response follow-up operations.

In July, I held a Census roundtable in Lorton, Virginia to discuss with stakeholders the importance of engaging in community outreach efforts and encourage participation in the 2020 Census. During that discussion, several constituents expressed concerns about the hiring delays and noted that while the Census Bureau has historically hired noncitizens when needed, job postings for 2020 Census positions included a citizenship requirement. I wrote to Director Dr. Steven Dillingham in August to express my concerns about these issues and to urge the Census Bureau to seek a waiver from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to hire non-citizens. Unfortunately, the Director’s response stated that the Census Bureau will only hire non-citizens as translators on an as-needed-basis during peak field operations. The Director’s response only increases my concerns that the Census Bureau does not grasp the magnitude of the problems it will face in reaching and counting all residents of the United States. A shortage in enumerators could reduce non-response follow-up operations, leading to larger undercounts in hard-to-count communities.

I call on the Census Bureau to step up its efforts to partner with organizations and trusted stakeholders in hard-to-count communities to ensure an accurate count, including addressing fears caused by the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and the failed attempt to add a citizenship question. There is too much at stake to allow this Administration to sabotage the 2020 Census for its own political agenda.
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