STANDARD DEVIATIONS: How Widening Gaps in Decennial Census and American Community Survey Response in Easy and Hard to Count Communities Lead to Inequitable Allocation of Social Program Funding

By Edward Kissam

Standard Deviations blog posts represent the views of the author/organization, but not necessarily those of the Census Project.

Here, I briefly review the evidence suggesting that a combination of long-term “structural” limitations in Census Bureau methodology and the distinctive pandemic-related circumstances that likely led to systematic differential undercount in hard-to-count neighborhoods and communities in 2020 may have seriously impaired data quality for the coming decade. 

My observations stem from analysis of ACS response and Census 2020 self-response in a virtual “case study” of a California area (Fresno County) with high concentrations of agricultural workers and other low-income households of Mexican immigrants. In light of this evidence, it is almost certainly the case that currently available decennial census and ACS data will not be “fit for use” for equitably allocating public sector funding in this area and others like it.

I argue, however, that if more detailed operational metrics were made available, it would be possible to assess the extent to which the characteristics associated with low self-response in hard-to-count Hispanic census tracts with concentrations of non-citizens also undermined effectiveness of nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) and led to differential undercount in this stratum of census tracts.

–              Ed Kissam is a researcher who has focused on farmworkers and immigrant settlement in the U.S. for three decades. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has worked on strategic response to COVID-19 in farmworker communities as part of several collaborative networks of grassroots organizations, healthcare providers, and university researchers. He is co-trustee of the WKF Fund which provides support to a range of social justice initiatives.