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Release Of Possible Topics For 2020 Census Raises Concerns


About three years from now in 2020, someone from the U.S. government may ask you a few personal questions, a census taker. Much rides on the answers the census takers get every 10 years. And this time, the political stakes may be a little higher than normal. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: What can be so controversial about a survey the government first conducted in 1790?

ROSALIND GOLD: We like to say that the census is about two simple things, money and power.

WANG: That was Rosalind Gold of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. And she says the stakes are high. The number of residents will determine how many seats in Congress each state gets, not to mention how hundreds of billions of dollars in government services will be distributed. Gold is worried there will be an undercount in 2020 among some communities.

GOLD: Many Latinos will be fearful of responding for fear that the information they provide will be used for immigration enforcement activities.

WANG: In January, the Washington Post published what it said was a draft executive order directing the Census Bureau to quote, "include questions to determine U.S. citizenship and immigration status," unquote, in the 2020 census. NPR asked whether that draft order was under consideration. The White House did not respond by airtime. The Census Bureau also did not respond to NPR. And Gold raises another concern.

The 2020 census will be the first to collect responses mainly through the internet, posing new security issues.

GOLD: Ten years ago, the possibility of data being hacked or being tampered with, those concerns were not nearly as acute as they are now.

WANG: The Census Bureau is working on new security measures to protect people's personal information. But a bigger hurdle may be building up public trust so that the government can get the data in the first place, according to Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He served on the Commerce Department's Data Advisory Council.

DANIEL CASTRO: The message to policymakers should be, you know, can we keep politics out of the data? Basically allow the experts, the career civil servants who are doing this work, to continue to use best practices for gathering information.

WANG: Kenneth Prewitt is a former director of the Census Bureau who served under the Clinton administration. He's concerned that the immigration debate could determine the questions asked on the census.

KENNETH PREWITT: I think that would set up a huge partisan argument. And the census would be stuck in the middle of that.

WANG: Prewitt adds that besides politics, the bureau is also dealing with uncertain funding from Congress. And that means the bureau may have to scrap more trial tests of its methods, plus follow-up visits to people who don't respond immediately to its questionnaires.

PREWITT: That means we will not have a very good census. And not having a good census means that we have an undercount. And the undercount will vary by region and by grouping.

WANG: And that kind of undercount could bring the credibility of the 2020 census into question, along with the redistricting and the elections that follow from it. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang is a national correspondent for NPR based in New York City. He reports on the people, power and money behind the 2020 census.
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