EDITORIAL: Counting on the census

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Critics say the citizenship question on the census will inhibit responses from immigrant-heavy communities that are worried the information will be used to target them for possible deportation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. Census has always done a really good job of counting white people.

Each decade since 1790, census takers have scrupulously gone forth and counted every person living in the United States.

Well, nearly every person.

In that very first census, there were five categories of people counted: free white males 16 and older, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons and slaves. Pennsylvania had the second highest population at the time with 434,373 residents, 3,737 of them slaves. Virginia had the highest population, 747,610, including 292,627 slaves.

Were they counting only citizens, or only people who could vote? Absolutely not. Only free white people could be citizens at that time, and only white men could vote. Slaves were counted for the census but had no rights. 

Fast forward 229 years, and a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. 

The 2010 census undercounted African Americans by 2.1% and Hispanics by 1.5%, the Census Bureau estimated. That's about 1.5 million people who weren't counted in the population of 308.7 million. In contrast, the overall census overcounted by 0.01%, about 36,000 people, mostly by double counting affluent people with more than one home.

There are many reasons the census gives for why some people miss the count. They live in nonstandard housing or don't have an address. Census workers go into communities and try to find people who might have been overlooked, but they're hard to find, especially if they don't want to be found.

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And those who aren't citizens often don't want to be found, even if they are here legally. Especially in these days of immigration raids and horror stories of deportations, they are wary of anyone from the government who wants to know how many people are living in the home. 

The Trump administration wants to make sure those who are least likely to be counted in the census become even more invisible by returning the citizenship question to the form every household is expected to fill out next year. The question was removed in 1960.

Three courts have blocked the plan to ask every resident about their citizenship, finding that the question would discourage many immigrants from being counted.  

On Tuesday, April 23, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case. The administration claims it wants the question in to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Several states, the House of Representatives and the American Civil Liberties Union say a census questionnaire that asks people if they are citizens will clearly be less accurate.

1790 Census Population Results

As Secretary of State in 1790, Thomas Jefferson was chief administrator of the first census. He certified the results reported by marshals and assistants in the original 13 States plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). A total of 3.9 million people were counted in the first census, although for apportionment purposes the count was around 3.6 million.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, this is a solution in search of a problem.

In 2010, the census counted 43,718 people living in York City, 7.4% of them born outside the United States. York County had 434,972 residents, 3.8% of them foreign born.

Would those who are not citizens have filled out the form with the citizenship question? There's a good chance they would not.

The census has an important function: It governs how the federal government divides resources among the population, from seats in Congress to how much communities receive of $675 billion in funding for schools, health care, transportation and more. 

The government should be doing everything it can to make sure the count is as accurate as possible. The Trump administration is doing the exact opposite of that. 

States with high immigrant populations, such as California, lean heavily Democratic. Sure that has nothing to do with the administration's attempt to lower the census count in those areas, right?

We can only hope that the Supreme Court will uphold the lower courts' rulings and let the administration know that every person, regardless of citizenship status, race, age, gender or any other factor, deserves to be counted.