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Florida could be hurt by Census undercount, especially of black and Hispanic households, new report finds

With high black and Hispanic populations, 300,000 could go uncounted.
Hilda Deer, Public Service Coordinator for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, assists Elysee Marcellus filling out his family Census for 2000. Marcellus' mom, Therese Marcellus, is watching on the side. HCSO Deputy Darrell Hartzog stands by in the background. The event took place Saturday in the parking lot of the new Walmart on Fletcher Avenue in north Tampa. [Tribune (2000)]
Hilda Deer, Public Service Coordinator for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, assists Elysee Marcellus filling out his family Census for 2000. Marcellus' mom, Therese Marcellus, is watching on the side. HCSO Deputy Darrell Hartzog stands by in the background. The event took place Saturday in the parking lot of the new Walmart on Fletcher Avenue in north Tampa. [Tribune (2000)]
Published Jun. 4, 2019
Updated Jun. 4, 2019

Census takers may fail to count more of Florida’s residents than most other states, according to new research. Undercounts could mean communities lose out on government or grant money for years.

A paper by the Urban Institute predicts that Florida will suffer greater undercounts because it has particularly high Hispanic and black populations. People in those racial groups have historically been missed by Census takers.

Further, a controversial citizenship question, which is expected to dissuade Hispanic residents from responding, would particularly affect the state.

These anticipated factors threaten to undermine Florida’s reported population, making it less accurate than in most of the country.

Within the state, areas with many black and Hispanic households would lose out more than heavily-white neighborhoods, warned Diana Elliott, a senior research associate at the institute and an author of the report.

"Certain communities will miss out on their fair share of funding,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s team at the institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan think tank, mapped out three scenarios for the 2020 count. In its “low-risk” case, they assumed that households would respond as much as they did in 2010. In higher risk cases, they factored in the Census Bureau’s expectation of lower response levels, as well as the depressed response rate caused by the citizenship question.

Even in the best case, the researchers concluded, the Census may fail to count about 2.4 percent of black Americans and 2 percent of Hispanic Americans. By contrast, white non-Hispanic Americans are expected to be slightly overcounted.

Florida ranks 11th among states in total black share of its population (18 percent) and 6th in total Hispanic share of its population (27 percent).

Researchers project about 97,000 Floridians will go uncounted, at least. The state’s undercount rate (0.4 percent) would be the eighth-highest in the nation.

And in a “high-risk” scenario, nearly 1.5 percent of Floridians would not be counted, the seventh-highest rate among states. That would total about 320,000 people, more than how many live in Orlando. In that case, Florida would jump a notch to the the nation’s seventh-highest uncounted rate.

Census takers are more likely to miss people of color because of a more transient, hard-to-track lifestyle that accompanies poverty, researchers said. Sending forms to mailing addresses and following up in person are most effective when people own their homes and don’t move frequently.

“The more you are in poverty, the more transitional you are,” said Rob Santos, vice president and chief methodologist for the institute.

Renters and people with less stable living situations are more likely to be missed, he said. As of 2018, the homeownership rate for white, non-Hispanic Americans was above 70 percent, compared to less than 50 percent for black and Hispanic people.

Meanwhile, white people are much more likely to own multiple homes. Responding to Census forms at more than one address can lead to an overcount. Similarly, separated parents of children in joint-custody arrangements might double-count their kids.

Santos also said people 50 and older are more likely to be white and more likely to fill out Census forms when they get them.

Just because a form isn’t returned doesn’t mean a household isn’t counted. When residents don’t respond, the Census looks for other records to see who may live at a given address.

Those records, such as voter registration or Medicare documents, are more comprehensive for white people than for people of color.

Then there’s the citizenship question. The Census has not asked every household to give every resident’s citizenship status since 1950. The bureau itself believes doing so in an immigrant-unfriendly political climate will dissuade immigrants and Hispanic people, regardless of their immigration status, from responding.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to allow the question by the end of the month.

If many people fail to respond, some of them inevitably won’t be counted at all. Based on the Census Bureau’s analysis, a federal judge in a prior case concluded that asking the question would lead to skewed data, less precise than the separate survey methods the bureau already uses to determine citizenship.

Even if the question is blocked, it may have already done damage.

“The negative policy environment surrounding immigrants and the citizenship question is expected to suppress immigrant participation, regardless of whether the courts allow the citizenship question to be added,” the researchers wrote.

Despite its expected impact on her state, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has signed a letter to the Supreme Court supporting the citizenship question.

Of the 17 states to sign, only Texas has more Hispanic residents per population than Florida.

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