World Mayor 2023

The 2020 US Census: Metro areas show growth
By Tony Favro, Senior Fellow

ON THIS PAGE: Challenges remain ||| Political and financial implications ||| Trump’s politicization of the 2020 Census ||| Social and population trends ||| Concerns about data integrity ||| Summary |||

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2020 US Census - Counting AmericansAfter a turbulent process, the 2020
US Census still faces challenges

September 2021:
The 2020 US Census was marked by challenges related to Covid-19, especially the suspension for months of traditional door-to-door canvassing. The 2020 Census was also marked by the Trump Administration’s efforts to politicize the Census process and the data generated. The United States federal government conducts a census of the nation’s population at the beginning of every decade. The results of a census help determine the amount of federal funds disbursed to state and local governments over ten years, and thus are critical to cities.

The US Conference of Mayors, representing more than 1,400 cities, created a task force specifically to monitor the 2020 census process. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Georgia, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio, Texas, are currently the task force’s chair and co-chair, respectively.

The US Conference of Mayors, National Urban League, National League of Cities, and many other groups filed lawsuits against the Trump Administration. Citing the Administration’s attempts to “create widespread confusion and undermine the integrity of the count,” Greg Fischer, Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said of the legal actions, “we must do all that we can to ensure a complete and accurate count that fully represents our cities and metro areas.”

Census data important to cities were released in August 2021, months behind schedule. They show a more racially diverse America. The data also show a movement of people from rural to urbanized areas, with especially strong population growth in about 25 metropolitan areas.

There are concerns about the quality of the data, and several mayors are considering challenges to the results for their cities.

Political and financial implications
Once every ten years, the US Census Bureau sends a survey to all US households requesting demographic information. The survey can be returned by surface mail or online, and census workers personally visit households to gather information when surveys are not returned or are incomplete. Because of the pandemic, door-to-door enumeration was suspended for months and the overall number of such in-person quality checks was drastically reduced.

Population totals from the decennial Census are used for the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing voting districts for federal and state elections in the US. The election districts of Congressional representatives, for example, are based on population size, and the boundaries of the districts change once every ten years relative to changes in population determined by the decennial Census.

Moreover, hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funds are distributed each year to state and local governments based on the results of the decennial Census. An accurate Census ensures that local funding for essential services, including transport, housing, education, environment, public health, and public safety is distributed fairly for a decade. Precise Census data are thus crucial for local governance.

Trump’s politicization of the 2020 Census
Former President Donald Trump and his administration’s efforts to undermine the 2020 decennial Census included attacks on the integrity of the Census, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the removal of resources during the pandemic when more resources were needed.

Trump, for example, called the Census process “the craziest thing”, suggesting that it lacked integrity. The administration attempted to order the Census Bureau to ask the citizenship status of every person in a household. According to critics, the unprecedented question would lead to an undercount of noncitizens and minority residents who would be reluctant to respond to the Census survey, fearing it would subject them to Trump’s harsh immigration policies.

The US Conference of Mayors filed a lawsuit to block the inclusion of a citizenship question in a coalition with several states and the cities of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Providence, Rhode Island. The lawsuit was victorious in a lower court and the decision was upheld by the Supreme Court, forcing the Trump Administration to abandon the citizenship question.

The Trump Administration then ordered the Census Bureau to try to count the number of undocumented immigrants, an almost impossible task to perform accurately, and essentially subtract the estimated number of undocumented immigrants from the census tally for congressional apportionment. This action was also challenged in the courts by various groups. Finally, the Trump Administration ended all counting efforts by the Census after nine months instead of the scheduled 12 months, a move supported by the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration’s actions were a blatant attempt to suppress vulnerable groups who traditionally vote for Democrats. Trump’s executive orders, changes to the data collection schedule, and uncertainty about the outcomes of litigation, as well as Trump’s unfounded criticism of the Census and difficulties posed by the pandemic, created widespread confusion about the 2020 Census.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as President, the Census Bureau terminated its efforts to comply with the Trump Administration’s directives, and an executive order by President Biden revoked the Trump administration’s actions.

The Census Bureau began delivering final data in August 2021, months behind schedule.

Social and population trends
The official 2020 Census data saw rural areas generally losing population and most urban areas growing. Population increases were noted in 312 of the 384 US metro areas. Eighty-eight of the 100 largest US cities grew between 2010 and 2020.

Fifty-three US metro areas experienced population growth of 15 percent or more, with 22 of them experiencing a ten-year growth of 20 percent or more. These metros gained about 11 million new residents, or nearly half of the total US population growth of 22.7 million, continuing a trend of Americans moving to a limited number of metro areas. (Further reading)

Census data also show a more diverse, multiracial population. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of individuals who identify as two or more races increased 276 per cent from 9 million to 33.8 million.

Concerns about data integrity
The Census Bureau issued assurances that the 2020 results and data are accurate because they “are comparable to the [Census Bureau’s] population benchmarks”; that is, the final results and data conform to estimates made previously by the Census Bureau.

But many local leaders and other stakeholders are concerned about data quality and the impact an inaccurate count may have on the allocation of federal funds to their communities.

Mayor Richard Irvin of Aurora, Illinois (population 180,000) said the 2020 Census data for his city “brought many questions, anomalies, and surprises.” The Census found that Aurora lost population between 2010 and 2020. Mayor Irvin says, “a supposed reduction of 17,000 people over the last decade is questionable at best,” pointing out that the loss would cost the city over $300 million in federal funds and millions of dollars of state funds over 10 years.

Other mayors question why, for example, their city had more job growth but less population growth than a neighboring city of similar size. Some researchers are puzzled why cities that had been losing population for decades suddenly saw large population gains.

Questions about the accuracy of the 2020 Census data derive primarily the Census Bureau’s new procedure of using federal records from the Internal Revenue Service, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Social Security Administration to fill in many gaps that in previous censuses would have been satisfied through a robust door-to-door enumeration process.

The Census Bureau also instituted a new system to safeguard the privacy of personal information by statistically injecting “noise” into data. A study by Harvard University concluded that the system contained biases and could lead to inaccurate population counts.

The Census Bureau has mechanisms for local governments to challenge the results of the 2020 Census, all of which are costly to local governments with no guarantee of success. Mayor Irvin of Aurora, Mayor Steven Hernandez of Coachella, California (population 42,000), Mayor Joe Schember of Erie, Pennsylvania (population 95,000), and Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit (population 639,000) are among the mayors from small, mid-size, and large cities who have publicly stated they are reviewing options for challenging the 2020 Census results.

Mayors of cities, which showed a population increase, often displayed an understandable satisfaction when the results were released. “This is a big victory for Paterson!” said mayor Andre Sayeghas of Paterson, New Jersey, which grew by 13,000 residents to 160,000 between 2010 and 2020 after decades of population loss.

Other stakeholders were more sober. “Everything is adding up to one of the most flawed censuses in history,” said Rob Santos, vice president of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization on urban issues.

Scrutiny of the results of the 2020 US Census is likely to be intense in coming months. The 2020 Census process faced unprecedented challenges in the United States. The stakes are high, and further review is likely to be contentious. US mayors can be expected to at the center of any controversy.

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