We celebrated a few weeks ago when the U.S. Census Bureau announced it had nearly completed its decennial count of America’s population despite so much wrangling and litigation over deadlines. The bureau said it eventually contacted all but a tenth of a percent of the country’s households, representing a smidgen of the population. In fact, this year’s count was said to be more complete than the last one a decade ago.
Well, it turns out there’s more to that story.
The Associated Press reported last week on two census takers who say they were pressured to “close cases” by entering data on uncounted households without actually knocking on doors. This happened as the bureau was sprinting to finish its work before a mid-October deadline, which had been shifted up by the Commerce Department and was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of those census takers, Maria Arce, told AP she was assigned to wrangle information from people living in Framingham. She said a supervisor told her how to override software on her mobile device so that she could indicate that people in some households could not be reached — even though she was sitting in her car and not actually knocking on their doors. “It was all a sham. I felt terrible, terrible,” she said, according to the AP.
A census taker in Indiana said her supervisor encouraged her to go a step further and make up answers on the census form — something she did for about two dozen households before she eventually refused to lie anymore.
These two cases of census takers violating the law — which is potentially punishable by a $2,000 fine and five-year trip to federal prison — may be isolated. Or they may indicate a widespread problem at an agency that faced an understandable setback as it tried doing its work amid a pandemic only to have rogue supervisors and census takers undermine its efforts.
Either way, public trust is shaken. What's at stake, in light of the role the census plays in divvying federal dollars and deciding congressional representation, makes these stories all the more egregious.
The Commerce Department's inspector general is investigating the reliability of the census data, according to AP. And while Census Bureau officials say no red flags have been raised about their statistics so far, nothing short of a thorough, transparent accounting of the agency’s practices will reassure a skeptical public.