COVID-19 threatens census count. At stake: money, political power.

COVID-19 threatens census count. At stake: money, political power.
Census (Source: nbc12)

WASHINGTON — It’s National Census Day.

Organizations across the country are marking the occasion with webinars, virtual rallies, Twitter chats and other digital events throughout the week. April 1 is the date by which all people in U.S. households are to be counted.

But the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to make the count even more difficult than usual, which could exacerbate the inequitable distribution of resources in Virginia and other states.

“Though many Virginians are focused on COVID-19, it is still crucial that everyone takes time to complete the 2020 Census, which can be done quickly and easily online,” Gov. Ralph Northam said last week. “Counting every person in the Commonwealth will ensure that we receive our portion of the more than $675 billion in federal funding that will be allocated to states for important programs, from Medicaid to school breakfasts.”

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, census data are used to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to states, counties and communities for schools, roads, hospitals and other programs and services. In 2016, Virginia received nearly $17.8 billion more than $17,766,199,831 from federal spending programs that relied on 2010 census data to disburse funds.

The data are also used to apportion states’ representation in Congress and in the Electoral College and to draw congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

But a full and fair accounting of millions of Virginians — not to mention hundreds of millions of Americans — is virtually impossible, even in typical census years. Certain groups — such as people of color, young children and others — have historically been undercounted, leaving them with less access to their share of government-funded programs and services. White people, on the other hand, have been overcounted in the past, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The COVID-19 outbreak “definitely has the potential to really reduce the response rate, precisely in the communities that have the lowest response rates in the first place,” said Justin Levitt, a political science professor at California State University in Long Beach.

People reached by door-to-door visits are less likely to have internet access or check their mail and respond to it, he said, and the success rate of such in-person visits is unclear at this point.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.