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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone. Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Every 10 years, the U.S. government tries to get a count of every person living in the country and to identify everyone by their demographic background and by where they live. This is called the decennial census. And the census determines, among a lot of other things, just how many seats in Congress go to each state. Well, 2020 is a census year, and the counting for the census just wrapped up. And this might be the single most important and exciting event that people are not talking enough about - except this guy.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: I'm Hansi Lo Wang. I'm a national correspondent for NPR covering the people, power and money behind the 2020 census.
GARCIA: Today on the show, I am speaking with my NPR colleague Hansi about this year's census and especially about the huge consequences, including the economic consequences, if the Census Bureau does not get the count right because this year, there are serious doubts about whether it can get the count right. That conversation is coming up right after a quick break.
Hansi Lo Wang, welcome to the podcast.
WANG: Thank you.
GARCIA: Hansi, let me start with this. 2020 is such a weird year in which to have to do the census count, given what's happened with the pandemic. So give us a kind of overview of all the logistical challenges involved in doing it.
WANG: Well, weird is just an understatement. This pandemic completely upended the Census Bureau's major plans for getting a complete count of every person living in the country, as the Constitution requires every 10 years, because there's a substantial part of the population in the United States that have a lot of distrust of the government, that don't want to participate in the census, even though it's required by the Constitution.
And the Census Bureau relies on in-person outreach. That's how it's tried to reach and make sure these historically undercounted groups - people of color, immigrants, renters, rural residents - that they are not missed in this head count. In-person outreach - that's the way to do it. That was practically impossible in the early months of the pandemic.
The bureau then tried to overcome some of the challenges by putting in place, you know, these measures for the Census Bureau workers to be socially distant and to wear masks. But on top of that is all the delays caused by this pandemic that really forced the bureau to push back its schedule and made this head count - threw it just deeper and deeper into chaos because a count that was supposed to have ended at the end of July had to continue on for months.
GARCIA: Yeah. And Hansi, there's been a lot going on. So let me try to set this up for our listeners. The Trump administration initially agreed in the first few months after the pandemic with the Census Bureau that the bureau should take more time in doing the count. But then the administration changed its mind a few months ago, and it made the assessment that the Census Bureau should actually finish the count sooner, even though that could mean undercounting certain groups of people, as you just explained.
So advocacy groups and state governments pushed back on the administration, saying that they wanted to make sure that everyone did get counted, and the whole thing went to the courts. And then last week, the Supreme Court effectively allowed the census count to end. It sided with the Trump administration. Now, presumably, if some groups of people do end up being undercounted in the census - people of color, immigrants, for example - then the states where they live will get less representation in Congress. But do we know why the administration changed its mind?
WANG: So it's really not clear why the administration made this change in its assessment, other than there is this one thing that President Trump did in July, which is he issued a memo calling for an unprecedented change to those numbers that determine each state's share of congressional seats. President Trump wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the numbers that determine each state's share of seats in the House of Representatives and, in turn, in the Electoral College, even though the 14th Amendment of the Constitution requires that count to include the whole number of persons in each state. And the Supreme Court has just recently agreed to hear this case. End of November is when they're set to hear oral arguments over whether or not President Trump can make this unprecedented change to the numbers.
And here's the thing about timing. By ending the count early, the Trump administration has a possible shot here at delivering the numbers, those state population counts, to President Trump by the end of the year, which would be during his current term in office, regardless of whether he wins reelection or not. So he can still have control according to this timing. But again, it's a big open question, given all these delays and all these interruptions, whether or not the Census Bureau can actually meet this December 31 deadline at this point.
GARCIA: Hansi, this is all fascinating because it seems like the census count should be a nonpolitical issue. It's just getting a count of who, in fact, lives in the country. And yet the count this year very much has been politicized.
WANG: You know, to take a step back here, the census is ultimately about power, and it's about money. And so that there is a knockdown, drag-out fight over it should not be surprising if you look at it from that perspective. But certainly, this administration has made a number of efforts here to really try to put their stamp on how the count is conducted and who is included in this count. And they're trying to test exactly what their limits are at the Supreme Court now.
GARCIA: Yeah. And Hansi, you mentioned that the census is about power and money. And of course, we're the economics podcast around here, so let me ask you about the money part. What are some of the economic consequences at stake of getting an accurate count from the census?
WANG: We're talking about an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for public services, including Medicare, Medicaid, education, roads, emergency response. These are all examples of public services where the funding from federal tax dollars - that funding is distributed in part based on the results of the census. You know, so it's really hard to overstate how influential these numbers are.
In addition, what's often overlooked is that business leaders rely on these census numbers to make decisions about where to open up new storefronts, how to plan out potential customer bases. Researchers, economists rely on this to figure out exactly who is living in this country and how that should be factored in to their work. This is a fundamental set of data that so many people rely on. And so all of these questions about how accurate they are, how complete they are - these have major implications on what life will look like, including the economy, over the next 10 years in the United States.
GARCIA: I guess I'm wondering if there's one thing about the census count that people maybe don't appreciate enough or misunderstand and that you think that our listeners really should know about. What would you tell them?
WANG: You know, it's always perplexed me why there is so much focus on the elections but not as much on the census. And maybe it has to do with - you know, the census - it only happens once every 10 years. And it seems kind of boring and dull, you know, counting every person living in the country. It's just a count. But this is a count that determines voting power. It determines the power of each voter's vote in presidential elections in 2024, in 2028 because the results of this count affects how many Electoral College votes each state gets, not to mention the impact on federal funding, on congressional seats, on how voting districts are redrawn.
You know, for whatever reason, the census gets overlooked until the deadline comes. And there are so many little decisions that are made before the count starts. And I think this census, through all of the controversies that I've reported on, may be a good reminder of just how much every person living in the country can be affected by these numbers and how much their power and their money are at stake.
GARCIA: Hansi Lo Wang, thanks so much.
WANG: You're welcome, Cardiff.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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