The U.S. Census does a lot more than simply catalog state population — its results determine states’ political representation in the House of Representatives, are used for drawing legislative districts and determine how $1.5 trillion in federal assistance is spent.
So it’s a little puzzling that such an important process, which happens only once every decade, is turning into a rush job this year.
The Census Bureau recently announced it is shortening the window for data collection for the 2020 census, changing the deadline for responses from the end of October to the end of September. Considering the importance of the census and how many other allowances have been made due to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must give the Census Bureau more time to gather comprehensive information.
About 63% of American households have responded since the 2020 questionnaire became available eight months ago. Less than seven weeks now remain for the Census Bureau to track down the other 37%. After Sept. 30, households will no longer receive visits from census workers or be able to respond online, by phone or by mail.
The bureau said it had to shorten the window because it wouldn’t have had enough time to compile data between Oct. 31 and Dec. 31, the deadline set by Congress for turning in numbers that will be used to redraw congressional districts. The bureau has pleaded with Congress to extend that deadline to the end of April 2021, as well as move the March 2021 deadline for state and local legislative districts to July 2021.
A measure that would meet the bureau’s request for extended deadlines passed the Democratic House last month but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The decision to move up the deadline worries civil rights activists, who say the change will cause historically marginalized communities not to be counted, influencing data used to determine political representation. An inaccurate count could also affect research relying on population demographics and how much funding is allocated to different regions through federal programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Congress has previously extended deadlines around multiple other federal initiatives due to COVID-19 restrictions, including tax collection, Real ID use, student loan payments and mortgage relief applications. There’s no reason why it cannot allow the Census Bureau more time to complete its goals as well.
This editorial is the opinion of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board.