Today, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer announced a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its decision to reverse course and shorten the duration of the 2020 census. Feuer argues that the truncated timeframe will result in an undercount for not only Los Angeles but communities across the U.S. as well, which could have dire consequences in public funding and political representation that span a decade.
The census is meant to count the entire population of the United States. It also asks how many people live in each home and each person’s gender, age and race. These figures determine how federal funding is allotted toward states, counties and communities. Think of your local schools, hospitals, roads, public transit and other programs. The census count also helps businesses and developers determine where they might open new outposts or build new homes. It determines local redistricting efforts. Crucially, the census results will also determine how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are divvied up among the states for the next 10 years. An accurate count is important.
Federal law would usually require that the Census Bureau report its findings to the president by Dec. 31. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed things for everyone, including the Census Bureau.
They suspended field data collection activities in March and issued a new, delayed timeframe. According to a statement from the Census Bureau in April, field data collection and self-reporting would end on Oct. 31, the apportionment count would be delivered to the president by April 30, 2021 and redistricting data would be delivered to states by July 31, 2021.
And then, on Aug. 3, the Census Bureau announced it was reverting to the old timeline, “as required by law and directed by the Secretary of Commerce.”
This plan means field data collection and self-reporting will end on Sept. 30 — a move Feuer said was unconstitutional and likely to cause a severe undercount. The same day, Feuer wrote a letter to Ron Jarmin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the U.S. Census Bureau, asking for an explanation. So far, he said he has not received one. Feuer also noted that this shorter timeframe, which he named “The Rush Plan,” comes after cities including Los Angeles publicized the delayed self-reporting deadline to citizens.
“The Rush Plan would give the Bureau just more than six weeks to complete enumeration of roughly half of the population here in Los Angeles in the midst of that pandemic,” Feuer said. “This is all to achieve a deadline that the administration, including the President, had been saying for months they can’t meet.”
The population of Los Angeles is considered particularly hard to count, according to Feuer, for a couple of key reasons. Renters are harder to count because they’re more transient, and over half of L.A.’s households are rentals. You can complete your census on the internet, but 20% of L.A. residents don’t have access to broadband internet. Non-English speaking households are harder to count, and nearly a quarter of L.A. residents do not have English-language proficiency.
Currently, L.A.’s self-response rate is 53.8%, which is below the state’s average of 65% as well as the city’s self-response rate of 68% during the last census.
The suit against the Trump administration asks the court to revert to the plan the Census Bureau came up with in April. Feuer said Los Angeles is joined in this request by cities including Salinas and San Jose as well as Harris County in Texas and King County in Washington state and organizations including the National Urban League and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross disagrees that the reduced timeline will result in faulty data. He wrote an op-ed claiming the count will still be complete because the Census Bureau adapted follow-up procedures for non-responding households and increased work hours per week to do the same amount of work in less time.
This is the third lawsuit Los Angeles has filed against the Trump administration regarding the census. Last month, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — along with the cities of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland, as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District — filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted in the census. In 2018, Los Angeles and other municipalities sued the administration over their plan to include a citizenship question in the census.