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As 2020 Census Approaches, Worries Rise Of A Political Crisis After The Count


The federal government is gearing up for its big 2020 census count. Today Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress the Census Bureau needs more than $15 billion to do the survey.


WILBUR ROSS: There are still many challenges ahead, and these additional resources I have described are urgently needed.

SIEGEL: Some people fear that a bad census count in 2020 could lead to a political crisis. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang looks at one such debacle which unfolded almost a hundred years ago.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Every 10 years, the U.S. Constitution requires a count. The federal government is supposed to tally up all the people in the U.S. Then it's supposed to use that data to determine how many seats in Congress each state gets. But there was a time when some people in government didn't like the numbers they got, and they refused to use them to reapportion seats in Congress.


ROGER OWENS: It's 1920 and census time in the United States.

WANG: Tradition was broken for the first time after the 1920 census, back when census clerks made holes in punch cards to count up 106 million people, as this old newsreel shows.


OWENS: Keeping up with growing nation, census counts these newly arrived Americans, too.

WANG: In the end, the 1920 census numbers uncovered a major shift. For the first time, the U.S. was no longer a rural nation.

MARGO ANDERSON: The results of the census showed radical growth in the big cities.

WANG: Margo Anderson is a census historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she says this launched a cultural debate around the country.

ANDERSON: Well what does this mean? Is this accurate? What does it mean to give the cities more political power in the national government and so on?

WANG: Add to that the states were facing a zero-sum game for seats in the House of Representatives because there wasn't enough physical space on Capitol Hill to add more seats. So the Republicans, who were in control of Congress, pushed back against the census results - numbers that confirmed to many native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans that the country's demographics were changing.

MAE NGAI: It was a high point of nativism basically because it's a racist reaction to people who were different.

WANG: Mae Ngai is an immigration historian at Columbia University, and she says the 1920 census showed growing numbers of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Russia and Poland.

NGAI: It's only when you have really massive numbers of unskilled laborers from new-sending countries that people begin to freak out.

KENNETH PREWITT: What they saw was a country they simply didn't recognize and didn't want to admit was happening, so they stalled.

WANG: Ken Prewitt is a former census bureau director who served during the Clinton administration. That stalling mainly by rural conservative republicans lasted for almost a decade in Congress. It meant that the results of the 1920 census were never used to redistribute seats in the House of Representatives. Some newspapers at the time called the delay unconstitutional and quote, "tyranny in the raw."

Congress has since passed laws to make reapportioning seats automatic after each census, but Pruitt says he's worried about another political crisis after the 2020 count. Underfunding has already delayed an advertising campaign and canceled important field testing. Pruitt says this could lead to another national debate about whether the latest numbers are accurate.

PREWITT: We're in a moment of high levels of mistrust in the government, and yet it's supposed to be an Internet census. In this current mood, I don't know how much cooperation we're going to get.

WANG: And that could put the distribution at more than $600 billion a year in federal funding, the Electoral College and other parts of the government that rely on census numbers in jeopardy. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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