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Census is worth Congress’ attention

By March or April, it was clear the 2020 Census would be much more of a guessing game than in decennial population counts. COVID-19 has seen to that.

Our whole society has been disrupted in multiple ways. Responding to census questionnaires has been the last thing on the minds of millions of Americans.

Doing all that is possible to obtain an accurate count of the people living in our country clearly has not been uppermost on the minds of many federal officials, either. The decision to stop information collecting a month early makes that plain.

Evidence is mounting that this year’s census count has missed a significant number of people.

Census Bureau officials insist they have reached more than 99.9% of American households. That idea will seem laughable to veteran observers of the federal bureaucracy.

“Do not be fooled by the Census Bureau’s 99% myth,” Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, told the Associated Press. “If there ever was fake news, this is it.”

Do not be misled by the fact that many census skeptics, like Morial, specialize in cities. In some respects, undercounting is likely to be more of a problem in rural areas.

Just before the count was shut down Oct. 16 and all the states’ response rates were replaced with “99.9%,” the New York county that showed the lowest response rate, by far, was not the Bronx or Queens, but Hamilton, which is the size of Long Island but without a single traffic light. The second worst rate was Sullivan, which is also rural — as is the third-worst, Essex County.

This is not an issue of interest primarily to statisticians and demographers. It is of critical, concrete importance to all Americans.

Census figures are used in a variety of ways, including how tens of billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated each year. For example, money from Washington makes a real difference in the quality of our public schools.

It matters, too, in politics. Population figures are used to determine how many members of the House of Representatives come from each state. Within states, they affect how many legislators are elected from various regions.

It goes all the way to the top. Census counts affect states’ clout in the Electoral College — which picks presidents.

Census Bureau officials’ word cannot be accepted on this one. Congress — on a bipartisan basis — needs to investigate the census process and issue a report to the American people. We, not a few bureaucrats in Washington, need to be convinced this year’s population count is as accurate as humanly possible.

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