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What's At Stake As The Supreme Court Considers Census Case


Well, however the Supreme Court rules on adding the citizenship question to the census, that count will have major implications on the lives of people around the U.S. Census numbers determine how many congressional seats each state gets. They also guide how hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars are distributed to local communities.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been tracking all the developments of the 2020 census, and he's here in the studio now to explain what's at stake. Hey, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: So we just heard from Nina Totenberg that the Supreme Court is likely to decide by June. That's also when the Census Bureau says it needs a decision. We're talking about June of 2019. Why is that deadline so important?

WANG: Because the Census Bureau needs to get 1.5 billion pieces of paper. This is - we're talking about census paper forms, letters, postcards, other mailings needed to carry out a 2020 census count. All of that needs to be printed starting this summer. And currently, as budgeted, the Census Bureau needs to have that decision and needs to know exactly what questions will be included by the end of this June. And paper forms are going to be very important for the 2020 census.

It will be a census that will allow all households to participate online and by phone. But for folks who don't have reliable Internet access, don't want to give their information over the phone, paper forms are going to be the way to collect their information. And in case if there are any major technical issues with IT systems, paper is the only backstop.

SHAPIRO: One-point-five billion is a lot of forms. If the Supreme Court does decide to allow the Trump administration to add this citizenship question, what can you tell us about how that would play out in practice?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau has done some research, and it estimates that at least - about 6.5 million people will be discouraged from responding to the census themselves. And this possibly risks these people not being counted in the 2020 census. There will be efforts to try to reach them by sending door-knockers knocking on their doors trying to collect their information in person.

But that is going to be - it could be a very tough challenge, a really - a hard job to do with the citizenship question given that there is a lot of fear about answering that question and participating in the census if it is included. And ultimately, you know, this risks people missing from the data from the 2020 census. And if they're not in the 2020 census, they'll be missing from these official numbers for the next decade.

SHAPIRO: In addition to the door knocks and outreach that you describe, are there specific efforts to target people of color, immigrant communities, the types of people who would be less likely to respond to this?

WANG: You know, that is always a challenge with - in any census. And with a citizenship question, it becomes that much harder. And the key from past censuses is really the outreach that local community groups. They are the ones that go knock on doors and make sure that people - encourage them to participate in the census.

And, you know, it's important to remember that there are laws in place to protect the confidentiality of census information. And data identifying individuals can't be released until 72 years after it's collected. The challenge here is that can these local community leaders get the public to trust that the administration will uphold these laws?

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, is the Census Bureau taking other steps to prepare for a world in which that citizenship question is on the census and people might be discouraged from responding?

WANG: You know, one big challenge is, will there be enough workers to do that door knocking and doing that outreach? And the Census Bureau really doesn't know exactly how many more workers it might need in order to carry out a census with a citizenship question. That's why they're doing a test of a census form - the first one with a citizenship question - beginning this June. And we'll see about a half million households will be participating in that test census run.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who's covering the 2020 census for us, thanks a lot.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.