Racial Justice Series: "The Power Behind the Count: The Census & Representation"
with reporter Hansi Lo Wang ’09
Recorded on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020
Jason Zengerle: All right. I think we'll get started. I am Jason Zengerle, the class of 1996 and I will be your moderator tonight for our Hansi Lo Wang's presentation as part of the SWAT talks, Racial Justice series: The Power Behind the Count, the Census Representation, which is brought to you by the Alumni Council. Just before we start, a couple of housekeeping matters. This zoom session is being recorded and you'll be able to find it on the SWAT talks recordings webpage within the next couple of weeks. Please submit your questions using the chat feature and please share your name and class year in the question cause it won't necessarily show in your ID. Also, we're trying out a poll on zoom tonight so hopefully that will pop up on your screens. Please answer that question and we'll announce the results at the start of the Q and A.
Now I'd like to introduce you to Hansi Lo Wang who's a national correspondent for National Public Radio. Hansi graduated from Swarthmore in 2009. He was a political science major and a history and Asian studies minor. While he was at Swarthmore, he also worked as a producer or a reporter and a host on the student run War News Radio, which is a weekly podcast which was then about the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that eventually led him to go into work for NPR in 2010. Since starting at National Public Radio as a Kroc fellow that year, Hansi has reported on race and ethnicity for the Code Switch podcast. He's worked as a production assistant on Weekend Edition and as a reporter on the National Desk. In 2017 he made the census his beat, which turned out to be a very precious move on his part. If you listen to NPR, he has become a household name. This might be the first time that my two kids who hear NPR a lot have been at all impressed when I told them that's someone I was talking to. So now I would just like to turn it over to Hansi.
Hansi Lo Wang: Thank you, Jason. Thank you for that very kind introduction. Yeah, when I was a student at SWAT I remember hearing your name as a Swattie who made it as a professional journalist so to be introduced by you feels like I've made it. And I also wanna thank another fellow SWAT journalist Dina Zingaro class of 13 and Lisa Schaffer, the alumni office who really persisted in bringing us all together to talk about the census tonight. And if you see right now there is a poll right in front of you. You can answer whatever response works for you and we will take a look at those responses a little bit later tonight. But we're gonna talk about the census, which I know to a lot of people sounds probably super boring. Not very interesting, clearly not for you maybe since you're here on a Wednesday night. But here's the thing. What we're really gonna talk about tonight is people, power and money. And I'm gonna start with this map. And right now you should see an electoral college map which I'm sure we have all been staring at for some version of it for days now. President Trump wants to try to reshape this map for the next decade in an unprecedented way before leaving office. I will get to that later but start, let's start with the basics. Look at the numbers underneath most of the state abbreviations. You add them all up and you get these magical number 538. Where does that number come from? How are those votes assigned to each state? This is one way here's another way and this is where the census comes in. 435 electoral college votes are essentially up for grabs every 10 years because they're tied to the 435 seats for voting members in the house. And those 435 seats, as well as 435 electoral college votes are distributed based on each state's population as determined by the once a decade constitutionally required census. So every 10 years, the national political map is reset. I just wanna be clear the 2020 Census results this year do not affect the electoral college map you just saw because if you're a voter what you voted, you're the power of your vote this time around for this presidential election that just passed that was determined by the 2010 Census. But this year census will determine the power of the vote in presidential elections in 2024, as well as in 2028. And it's important to point out that census data are also used to redraw voting districts at the state and local lever. But you know if political power, representation aren't your thing, let's talk about money and I'm talking about lots of money. Lots of zeros, it's $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding that are guided in part by census results. Close to half of that a year goes to Medicare. The rest goes to Medicaid, as well as education programs, roads other public services. And what's interesting is that one thing I've learned from reporting on the census for the past three years is that this part of the census, this impact of the census is almost like a secret to a lot of people living in the U S more than two years ago the Census Bureau did a nationwide survey of what they call census barriers, attitudes, and motivators. They're trying to figure out how did they come up with their messaging campaign and encourage people to participate in the census. And the Census Bureau found out that less than half of the participants in their nationwide survey knew that the census was used to determine community funding. So all of this, the impact of the census is apparently hidden behind seemingly boring paperwork. Maybe you remember something looking like this from earlier this year on your left of the screen this is an envelope and on the right you see a postcard from the Census Bureau. The envelope was supposed to have arrived at almost every home in the country, at least once. But a lot of people received it; they were not sure exactly why they got it, what to do with it. And for some people this envelope and this postcard was seen as a threat. There is a lot of distrust in the government especially when it comes to the census. There's fear of giving up personal information to the government even though there are federal laws that protect people's personally identifiable information from being released for 72 years. And since this information can't be used against a person by the government or in court, still there is this constant tension when we're talking about the census- this tension between the public needing to trust the government with their information and the government needing the public being willing to volunteer this information in order to collect the most accurate information, information that the government needs to run and to make sure it's fulfilling the needs and providing enough services to the people. I have to mention there is a history of the U S government misusing census information. Most notably during World War Two. Census information was used to locate and wrongfully incarcerate more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent, mainly U S citizens on the West Coast. That history does not make the Census Bureau's job decades later any easier, especially at a moment when there is a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric. There's a lot of distrust in the government, as we've seen in these past few years under the Trump administration. This history is also tied to a question topic on the census that gets a lot of scrutiny from the public once a decade and that's race and ethnicity. And how the Bureau has asked about that has evolved decade to decade. This is from this year's census form. This is the Hispanic origin question. What's a Hispanic origin question? We're getting into the people part of my census reporting. It's also touching where directly in the racial justice of the SWAT talks. The Bureau has asked all U S households about race, ethnicity through two questions, coding question like this since 1980. And there's a separate question about Hispanic or Latino origin because it's required by federal standard set by the White House Office of Management and Budget. These are standards for how federal government collects race/ethnicity data. And it's a separate question cause it's designed to recognize the racial diversity among Latinx people. This question, if you remember from this year census form is filed by this question- the race question. And the answers to this question produce anonymized statistics that help us understand the demographics of the country used to enforce anti-discrimination laws and policy compliance with the Voting Rights Act, evaluating federal affirmative action plans, funding to schools for bilinguals services. All of that is guided directed relies on the answers to this question. It's also this data that's produced by these this question. It's also used by researchers and public health officials and because of the changing demographics of the country there's a lot of research behind the wording of this question and the previous Hispanic origin question. The Census Bureau conducts this research regularly. And there was a lot of research by the Bureau how to better collect this data cause a lot of people who identify as Latinx or Latino or Hispanic, don't see themselves reflected in these checkboxes. There's a similar dynamic on people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa. So one thing to look forward to during the Biden administration; this might be happening sometime. The Census Bureau might be adding a potentially a new category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent by the 2030 Census. This is something that the Census Bureau had proposed before the 2020 Census. But this proposal was essentially stalled by the Trump administration. In the Biden administration, President Biden, President elected Biden during the campaign has said he supports this idea. And thinking behind this is that officially people of Middle Eastern or North African descent are categorized as white according to the federal standards. But some advocates of MENA groups, including (indistinct) Americans have long asked for separate checkbox which they think would produce more accurate information about people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. This, these questions, this research all of this focus on the wording of questions and checkboxes. It's beyond just survey methodology and a bureaucratic form. These produce building blocks that help the federal government, researchers, policy makers figure out who is living in the country, what their needs are and how to best make policy. But before we think too far into the future about the 2030 Census, what new categories they may be, I have to point out that the 2020 Census is not over yet. Remember when I said earlier that before leaving office President Trump wants to try to reshape the electoral college for the next 10 years in an unprecedented way. The Supreme Court is actually hearing oral arguments about this topic, the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. So coming right up, and this is a legal fight that touches upon the first few sentences of this country's founding document. Now, did you know that before any mention of voting or a president, the constitution calls for a census- a census to determine each state share of house seats, seats in the house of representatives. The census is called in the constitution, a "actual enumeration" in the sixth sentence of the constitution. The fifth sentence or on proceeding with sixth sentence spells out the original instructions for how to count for the census. This is from Article One, Section Two. This is where you'll find the original sins of the country's founding preserved in the words of the constitution, where you'll find the three-fifths compromise- the framers' decision to count an enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being. Where you'll also find the phrase excluding Indians not taxed. A phrase that touches on the complex status American Indians have had in a country built on native American land. These instructions were modified in 1868 after the Civil War with the 14th Amendment. And these are the instructions that we live with today. You notice how it's changing, how the numbers are collected. The whole number of persons in each state. You still see the phrase, excluding Indians, not taxed but in fact, by 1940, the Census Bureau had consulted with the U S Attorney General at that time, receiving opinion that a legal opinion that all American Indians could be taxed by that time by the U S government after a 1935 Supreme Court decision and the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. I want to point out that there's a key word in these past two sections that we've been looking at which is the word persons. There's no mention of citizens. And that's why since the first U S Census in 1790 the numbers for reapportioning seats in the house of representatives included both citizens and non-citizens regardless of immigration status. Persons is a key word, persons in each state. But president Trump wants to make an unprecedented change. This was announced in a presidential memo released in July. Trump wants to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment count specifically from the census numbers used to reapportion house seats. The Trump administration is arguing that there's a Supreme Court ruling from 1992 that the administration argues that gives the presidents, this is their argument, discretion to decide who's in those apportionment counts. But three federal courts disagree. They've issued rulings. These are three judge panels at three different courts all ruled unanimously that excluding unauthorized immigrants steps outside the president's limited authority over the Census because there are federal laws that are modeled after this wording from the constitution that spells out that the whole number of persons in each state determine each state share of house seats. And one of the courts have ruled on President Trump's presidential memo, as also that memo is unconstitutional. It goes against this very amendment, the 14th Amendment. I'm expecting to see a Supreme Court ruling next month in December because there's an important set of legal deadlines coming up. Now, this is a schedule that is usually a yawner for a lot of people. People, a lot of people aren't very familiar with it does not get a lot of attention. This is a process though that may be getting a lot of attention may become very interesting in the last weeks of the Trump administration, before Trump leaves the White house. The first set of results from the Census are the state population counts. They determine, there was the reallocation of house seats, electoral college votes- the share that each state gets. And you can see the first line here, if you're not familiar with who, in the first line that right on the left side that is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The Commerce Secretary oversees the Census Bureau and the dome is the US Capitol, so Congress. And the rainbow colored map I have in the bottom right hand corner that's supposed to represent the governors. This is the handoff process of those first set of numbers. And these are the legal deadlines, but right now it's not clear if these legal deadlines can be met. The Census Bureau has to first go through all the information it's collected this past year for the census in order to produce the latest state population counts. But because there has been a pandemic, an ongoing pandemic, there has been historic hurricane season, historic wildfire season, as well as last minute decisions by the Trump administration to cut the Census short.
Back in July, I was the first to report that the Trump administration had decided to end counting a month early. That move was ultimately challenged in court, ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court, led to a very messy end of counting for the census. And so right now it's unclear if these deadlines, what they actually mean. And if we will, we'll have to see what happens here. What is clear is that the Census has been a largely under the radar focus for this administration. There's been a lot of talk and focus about a lot of other arenas of policy but I've been tracking how the administration has really particularly interest in the Census. Earlier this year the administration appointed four political appointees in three months, appointees with no experience or obvious qualifications that justified them joining the highest ranks of the largest federal statistical agency. And it's not clear exactly what these appointees are working on with their influence, what influence they have an agency that's largely run by career civil servants, statisticians, economists. I do know the Census will be a part of the story of Trump's final weeks because of this timeline that you see here. And it will likely be part of legal fights that will be playing out over the next decade. And I wanna end with another map. This is a map that I would point you to if you're asking, okay, counting has ended, officially ended on October 15th, 11:59 PM Hawaii Standard Time, after a lot of fighting in court. People often wanna know at this point, well, how good is the census? How good is the count? And the short answer is we don't know. And you should be wary of a talking point that is floating out there that this year Census was more than 99% complete. That stat tells you that the sheriff addresses that the Bureau considers that it believes that is crossed off its list, that it is accounted for but possibly through less than ideal methods. That 99% completion rate doesn't tell you much about whether the census is accurate. This map is a better indicator showing the sheriff households expected to respond on their own who actually did respond on their own either online over the phone or by paper and responding on their own. That is the most accurate way to get information for the census. On this map, you see each state's self response rates the final self response rate as of October 27th. The Bureau was still processing responses. That's why it's after October 15th. So the darker blue the color, the better you see there's an outlier here. Puerto Rico is in a light orange. Not a good color to be in on this map. Now, if you don't do the Census on your own, you know, if you're asking nationally, what about the third of households here that we're expected to participate in didn't end up getting participated, where they counted. The Bureau has alternatives and the most visible alternative are the doorknockers that you see, that you probably have seen over the past few months, maybe you've heard about. The Bureau tries to conduct in-person interviews with someone in the household. If that household hasn't responded by them, on their own, or they try to interview that households neighbors or building managers or they use existing government records to try to at least get a count of the people living inside that house that hasn't participated in the census. All of those alternative methods increase the risk of getting an inaccurate count. If you don't respond, Census Bureau workers are supposed to basically make up to six attempts to try to visit your home. But it's not clear how consistently those procedures were followed. Especially in August, when the Trump administration made those schedule cuts to the census and forcing the Bureau to lower some of their standards. And the Bureau does have a process to review all the results it's collected and to spot for any false responses, any made up responses or responses from the same person in multiple locations, duplicate responses. But it takes time to review the results, try to spot those errors, try to fix those errors. And the time for quality checks that the Bureau has has been cut down by the Census Bureau. What was supposed to take place over five or six months now on paper has to take place in about two and a half months, if the Census Bureau were to meet this December 31st legal deadline. That's what the Trump administration says the Bureau was trying to do right now. We'll see if that happens, but if they do try to do that, it really runs the risk of not having enough quality checks on the numbers. And we won't know for sure then whether, yeah, each person in the country, living in the country is kind of once only once in the right place which is the Census Bureau's goal. I'll leave you with this, a general tip. Census results are generally lumpy it's one way to put it. Some places are counted more accurately than others. So looking at any rates or metrics and how the census was, the participation rates at the national or state level doesn't tell you much because decade after decade the Census Bureau's methods have resulted in under counts of certain groups, rural residents immigrants, renters, children under the age of five all groups that have been historically under counted. And we won't know about the under counts of the 2020 Census until at least a year from now. There are census workers out knocking on doors still right now at a sample of households not every household trying to figure out the under counts of the 2020 Census is part of what's called the Post Enumeration Survey. And those results could be really important, are going to be really important to understanding the accuracy of the 2020 Census. And when we're thinking about racial injustice in this country and how to address it, all of what the Census Bureau is trying to do, all of these questions about serving methodology and the logistics of the census and the timelines, all of this is very, very important to track. It's not very flashy. It's not really well understood, but here again is what is at stake when the numbers are off. Historically white people have been over counted in the US Census while there have been under counted decade after decades of Black people Latinx people, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians. The question is, will this dynamic continue? And what does that mean for a fair distribution of power and money in this country for the next 10 years? I'll be trying to track this question in the months ahead. And I'm happy to take your questions to talk more about the census.
Jason Zengerle: Hansi, thank you. That was fantastic. That was really fascinating. I'm gonna try to sort through all these questions and get to as many as I can. This is a question from Jamie Stein, class of '82 and he says, if you're at Liberty, what is the motive of the Trump appointees at commerce running the 2020 census? And just, I sort of had a question along these lines as well. I mean, the Trump administration, you know their malevolence and their incompetence is kind of oftentimes in a neck and neck race. There's this question about undocumented immigrants and including them in the census. That's something Steve Bannon has been talking about for a long time. Were there ways that they could have gone about excluding undocumented immigrants that would have been more effective than the way they're trying that might've held up better to court challenges or, you know, is this in some ways, you know, just their ham-handed approach and the fact that it might not work or might not survive a legal challenge? That's sort of like the saving grace in all this.
Hansi Lo Wang: Let's start with the question of, you know, the motive of the latest the newest political appointees at the Census Bureau. I don't know for sure these are folks again who don't have really extensive statistical backgrounds or if they do they're, they really are not qualified to be in the new positions that are created for those political appointees or deputy director positions. And they're usually, it's just one deputy director at the Bureau. It's usually filled- it is currently filled by a civil servant, longtime economist. So we'll see exactly what they're trying to do. In terms of this policy goal of excluding, trying to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment counts. This is something that is in fact, if you look back at emails that this Trump administration was forced to release as part of the lawsuits over the citizenship question, which was a legal fight I was tracking a year ago. And before that the earliest emails released were talking about apportionment and about whether or not undocumented immigrants unauthorized immigrants are included in those numbers. So this is a long held policy goal by the Trump administration. And in terms of whether or not they could have done it in a way, in any other way. Here's the thing. If you're trying to exclude a number, a specific population from census numbers according to the Census Bureau's methodology it has to be done in a way that matches with the methodology that the Census Bureau does. So, you know, right now that, what the Trump administration is, has ordered the Census Bureau to do is to try to look at existing government records from the Department of Homeland Security for example, looking at how many people are in detention centers, run by ICE and matching those records with responses that the Census Bureau has received probably from the detention centers themselves because people who are incarcerated are counted where they're incarcerated for the census. So it has to be a matching that happens. You can't just put a number out because they have to match up with the state population counts. And one way they could have done that is if they added a question that got at immigration status. That wasn't done, that wasn't proposed even through the citizenship question that the Trump administration tried to get on. One supporter of the Trump administration, Kris Kobach, the Former Kansas Secretary of State, he actually did propose a citizenship question with a wording that would have included responses about a person's immigration status in addition to a citizenship status. If that had gone through, which very likely would not have given the Census Bureau's extensive policies and procedures for testing questions before they're added to a census form, if that were to have been added that would have been a much easier way logistically for the Census Bureau to come up with accounts of each state's undocumented population in order to exclude them from the apportionment counts.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Daniel Pope, class of '66 which is along those lines. He asks, "apart from the racism and excluding non-citizens from the count for reapportionment, how does the Trump administration claim to know which sentence respondents are citizens or non-citizens? Did they propose just a guess or an estimate? I mean, is it, is there any legally binding sort of thing that would make someone answer whether they're a citizen or non citizen?"
Hansi Lo Wang: Well, again, there was no citizenship question on the 2020 Census form. Because the Supreme Court blocked that and lower courts also permanently blocked it at the Supreme Court have rules in agreement with the lower courts. And so no citizenship should question. So the Bureau has been collecting information from households without knowing whether the people living in the households, whether they're U S citizens or not. And instead, the Bureau has been gathering, compiling records from federal agencies and trying to match those census responses with these existing government records such as passport records, state driver's license records, social security administration records. This is all really brand new territory for the Census Bureau, trying to match up and to rely on these government records. Because these records, it's really not quite sure exactly how accurate these records are. There is a delay often, not every green card holder after they become a US citizen necessarily goes back to these agencies and gets updated necessarily and their citizenship status may not be the most up to date according to those records. So there is a chance and a real risk of misidentifying a person's citizenship status by relying on these records. But this is a methodology that the Trump administration is now trying to use and directed the Census Bureau to try to use at this point. And we're gonna see exactly how accurate they, this methodology can be, how effective it can be. And to point out, this is also a methodology not just for coming, trying to come up with a count of unauthorized immigrants, but also specifically a citizenship population, a citizen population this is related to apportionment and that this is about apportionment at the state and local level if you will, this is about state redistricting and there is a methodology, or this is a way of redistricting that would exclude everyone except citizens old enough to vote. That is one way that a GOP strategist has concluded would give Republicans and non-Hispanic white people a political advantage when state and local voting districts are redrawn. The Trump administration is trying to use these records to produce the data needed to try to do that.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Aleda or Alida, sorry if I'm mispronouncing that Hong, class of 2009.
Hansi Lo Wang: Alida.
Jason Zengerle: Alida, okay, you know her. She asks, how does the census determine which ethnic groups are prioritized on the census versus who would need to hand fill in their ethnicity? She says, I remember my family talking about the importance of being counted as Taiwanese and not Chinese and Ruby (indistinct), class of 1982, asks "when was the distinction between people from Asia, i.e, India, China, Cambodia added to the census?"
Hansi Lo Wang: I'll start with Alida's question. That's a really good question. Kind of a general rule is that the Census Bureau tries to look underneath each major racial category based on a separate survey known as the American Community Survey, also conducted by the census. It's actually the largest survey in the country if you don't consider the census or survey. Because it is trying to not get a sample but every household in the country. American Community Survey there is an ethnicity origin question and that's where they take those numbers and they figure out which are the largest ethnic groups. The largest origin groups and those are represented through checkboxes and then groups that kind of don't meet whatever I forget the number of cutoff, those then are the write-in groups. And in general, that's the general rule and I think the Bureau, generally their methodology, they're trying to be as representative as possible to help explain, you know who should be considered within that group according to these federal standards set by the Office of Management and Budget. And in terms of when there were specific categories. Jason, can you remind me of the wording of the question when there were specific Asian categories.
Jason Zengerle: Yeah, when was the distinction between people from Asia i.e, India, China, Cambodia added to the census?
Hansi Lo Wang: This is a really interesting history that I hope to dig more into later. But what I know is that there has not been an Asian category on the census forms unlike there's always been a white category. There's been versions of the Black category but there hasn't been an Asian category when the first categories, I forget which one was first, it was either Chinese or Japanese. And then that was ultimately expanded by more Asian subgroups. And that has been part of the history of how the census forms have collected information of people of Asian descent as well as Pacific Islander descent by specifically collecting information based on ethnicity and not by a major racial category.
Jason Zengerle: And this is sort of related, Megan Ocker Becker asks "what would be the argument for not including more options in the race ethnicity section of the census? I understand why it can be complicated to determine what those options should be but not why they shouldn't be expanded at all."
Hansi Lo Wang: Well, there is in terms of if you're asking why the Trump administration if they had a reason and they have not given a public reason why proposals from the Census Bureau after research of proposing new categories changes to the race ethnicity question why they were not moved on. The Trump administration through the current Office of Management Budget has not given a public reason why those proposals for changes were not moved on. They were just stalled and back-burnered and I don't know what the Trump administration's thinking, reasoning for that was. But in terms of, you know, often what I hear in terms of survey methodology one major concern is just really real estate on a form. It's a different story now that we are using online forms for the U.S. Census, but before it was mainly on paper and there's only so much you can fit on paper. And so there's always concerns, every extra character and also the spacing and the formatting all of this has impact on the, it could affect how people respond to the form and also has issues in terms of just printing the paper, those questions so if you were to add every single category possible, that might be a very long list. So that's also something that is a constraint for the Census Bureau.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Walter Pincus, class of 1965. Are there any circumstances where the 2020 Census counting process can be reopened by the Biden administration?
Hansi Lo Wang: It's a great question. I recently did an article just about that. And the short answer is it's complicated. It's complicated. I'll first say that the census is not only in control in the hands of the president. It's actually, the constitution says "in the hands of Congress". And Congress, through federal statutes, have delegated a lot of their authority to the executive branch, to the president, and to whoever the president appoints as the Commerce Secretary. Because again, the Census Bureau leads in the Commerce Department. And so there has, there is a question about whether all those actors when that question is an actual you know, a real question before lawmakers, policy makers, decision makers, and government, whether all those actors are in agreement, there's a legal question. Whether or not any other count that's not the once a decade count on the schedule that has started since 1790. If those counts can be used specifically for reapportioning seats in Congress, House seats. That's the main purpose for the census according to the constitution. There are other purposes, of course, but the main purpose is to reapportion house seats. So can numbers from any other count other than the ones conducted again every 10 years since 1790? Can they be used for congressional reapportionment? It's unclear; we haven't been in this situation before. So that's a question. There's also a financial complication. This census, the 2020 Census is expected to be the most expensive U S Census in U S history about $16 billion, which is not a lot in the whole scheme of things in terms of the federal government's budget. But the Census Bureau has been in under a lot of pressure even before the Trump administration to cut back to scale down its costs and to really try to streamline and figure out ways to make it a less expensive census going forward from lawmakers and for years now to the extent that before the 2020 Census, there were tests that were planned but because the Census Bureau didn't get the funding it wanted, it had to cut those tests. So the big question is will Congress be willing to pay up for another census? So soon after this census has happened that's a major complication. And also, just the logistical complication. It takes 10 years to prepare for a census or the Census Bureau has taken 10 years to prepare for one. It's this fiscal year, it's starting to prepare for the 2030 Census. It's 2020, but they're thinking about 2030. And I've talked to census experts they could kind of take the plans for the 2020 and kind of rejigger them for something that's redone in 2021 or 2022. But that is still a big ask and a big question for the Census Bureau for whoever is in charge of both houses of Congress. By the time this question is on deck we'll have to consider.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Keith Torrey class of 2009 who was also your freshman year roommate. He wonders the four regions or nine divisions and their funding. Is it subject to a preferential or political treatment? IE, if the budget for the Census Bureau is cut is there any chance that they ever cut exclusively from one particular region for political reasons like gutting the Northeast or the South, preferentially could seemingly have major political changes? And also what dorm did you live in just for everybody?
Hansi Lo Wang: He wanted to ask which dorm?
Jason Zengerle: No I'm asking, I think I assume he knows, but I'm just curious.
Hansi Lo Wang: We lived in Parrish.
Jason Zengerle: Gotcha, all right.
Hansi Lo Wang: We lived in Parrish. And Keith, I'm trying to understand your question. You wanted to know which regions, the Census Bureau regions?
Jason Zengerle: If they cut out a particular region like if you, if the budget is cut, could you cut one of these regions and say under count, and you know if it was a Republican administration could you under count in the Northeast, if it was a democratic administration could you undercount the South? I assume that's what the question is.
Hansi Lo Wang: Got it. I think, I don't know if this is gonna answer your question, Keith, we can talk about this later, if you want. Generally, the Census Bureau approaches this again, in terms of a piecemeal kind of census. I'm not aware of one but there's a very long history of the US Census. So we can probably dig something up. But generally speaking the Census Bureau plans to do it. To do a census, their methodology is really trying to do it all the same way in every part of the country, in terms of in order to get the most accurate and uniform set of results in order to be fair and also to be accurate. So taking out of a region by region approach would not be good in terms of funding. The Census Bureau’s allocation of funding. I'm not really familiar with exactly how they divide it up between their regions, yeah.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Joan Heifetz Hollinger, class of 1961. She asks do you have a prediction as to how the Supreme Court will rule on the count or persons case they will consider after Thanksgiving? What role will Amy Coney Barrett play?
Hansi Lo Wang: I don't have a prediction. And this is when I would plead you should talk to Nina Totenberg or one of the longtime Supreme Court watchers. This is not my bailiwick but what I will say is that so far again three federal courts, three judge panels on each of those courts all unanimously have ruled that this memo calling for the exclusion of unauthorized immigrants. It's a memo from President Trump, they've declared unlawful. And one of those courts, one of these lower courts have declared it unconstitutional. And one of the, at least one of those opinions have noted that this would be breaking with 230 years of US history. And that up until the Trump administration, no federal agency, no part of the federal government has ever considered unauthorized immigrants are not part of the apportioned counts.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Joslyn Hunscher-Young class of 2010. What do you see as the most significant or lasting impact of the miscounting of this year's census and what can people do to address or deal with this going forward?
Hansi Lo Wang: There's a lot. I mean, again, this has implications on power, on money. I think one thing I think about is someone who has been thinking in reporting on just demographic changes in the country for a number of years now at NPR, you know, demographers tell us that the direction the country is going is that it is only becoming more diverse. You take a look at younger generations, you see a browner country. And the big question for me is that if in fact the country does get browner but we see a different country reflected on the paper, if you will, in the records and then the statistics that we use and there is this gulf where maybe we have communities over the next decade and beyond that really are not reflected in the numbers. And a time when we know that the coronavirus COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx people. What, that is, we could be flying blind public health officials, health researchers could be flying blind in terms of at the very basic level, understanding the extent to which communities are most at risk of a virus like the coronavirus or whatever future pandemic that may disproportionately affect certain communities, specifically people of color.
Jason Zengerle: This goes to something Mikayla Woodward, class of 1991 and asked, I'm curious, she asks, "I'm curious to know how COVID has affected the collection of census data in different demographic groups IE, which groups are most likely to be under counted because of the pandemic?"
Hansi Lo Wang: I don't know. And part of that is because the Census Bureau does not release. They do release updates on the response rates as, and they did that over the course of the counting but they only release that in terms of areas and not by specific demographic groups, that including race, ethnicity. So we don't know what we do know generally is that communities of color generally are less likely than white households to participate in the census on their own. And so they're more likely to be counted through a census door knocker and that we know that door knocking operation was severely impacted by COVID-19 in many areas of the country because of the stay at home orders. And also because of delays in the scheduling. And it also was just harder for Census Bureau workers to wear the mask, try to be socially distant. You know, it's one thing to be socially, trying to socially distance from a home, someone in a house, their front door and when there's a lawn, you know, and you can stand away. But what if you're trying to do counting a door knocker trying to do counting in an apartment building in a very narrow hallway. How do you socially distance there? And you're all ready in an indoor setting. So these are all risks and really complicated situations to conduct this on top of that, it was the Trump administration's push to end counting early, putting pressure on Census Bureau workers to get their jobs done more quickly. And so it's a big question because we know historically the households that the door knockers we're trying to reach are more likely to be communities, people of color.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question from Nate Erskine, class of 2010. What are your thoughts about amending the constitution to allow more statistical sampling for the census rather than direct enumeration to provide more accurate counts?
Hansi Lo Wang: That's a really good question. Yeah, there was a Supreme Court ruling- hope I don't get this wrong 1999- a Supreme Court ruling where a sampling was declared not to be allowed. You can't use any sampling, statistical sampling for the numbers that are used to reapportion house seats. And so, presumably I'm not a lawyer or a legal scholar but presumably a constitutional amendment could maybe address that and would allow that I, this is a history though, that I'm told that it was a very partisan debate where Republicans were very much against the use of statistical sampling. And it was Democrats who were for statistical sampling. It was a methodology that was proposed by the Census Bureau, statisticians arguing that there are methods that the Bureau could address for these persistent undercount, this persistent under counting of people of color by using sampling. But there were concerns mainly by Republicans that that would skew the counts in favor of Democrats. And so this could reopen another partisan political fight if we, some amendment is proposed and we'll have to see.
Jason Zengerle: Wren Elhai and again, I apologize if I'm butchering.
Hansi Lo Wang: You got it right.
Jason Zengerle: Oh, I did okay, good. Oh, you know this person, okay. Are there any stories of individual census workers or people who care deeply about the census that have stuck with you from your years of tracking? Class of 2008.
Hansi Lo Wang: Not years, but I've been in touch with some Census Bureau workers for months and specifically those who were part of the door knockers and also the field staff, the census field supervisors folks working in local census offices. There, this is, it's a really unique group. This is, the Census Bureau tried to hire almost a half million workers, huge workforce, and they tried to get them trained up in a very short amount of time and had to deal with this during COVID. And I remember interviewing Census Bureau workers in August, just after the Trump administration announced these schedule changes and workers one after another were just devastated that they those that were signed up to do this really to take part in what they considered a civic project and then a civic process in order to get the best count possible. A lot of folks all ready retired, folks who are not necessarily relying on this for income. They were devastated that they knew the reality and the ground that the blocks that they have been walking sending workers out to do the door knocking that there just was not enough time left in their opinion to get this job done in the right way. Which means knocking and knocking and knocking trying your best to try to get an actual in-person interview with someone inside that household. And then relying on alternative ways that might not be as accurate but at least could get the job done. But the question was time, was there enough time counting was supposed to continue through the end of October through to Halloween. And that got cut short and really muddied after August. And that just really devastated a lot of folks who signed up to get an accurate count.
Jason Zengerle: This question is from Joslyn Hunscher-Young, class of 2010. She asks, how does your work with War News Radio and your work in Chinatown through your Lang Opportunity Scholarship inform your approach to covering news stories at NPR today?
Hansi Lo Wang: Joslyn going way back! You know, I wouldn't I don't think I'd be talking today Jason, working in NPR if it wasn't for War News Radio. I did not grow up listening to public radio, did not know what NPR was, and it was through Swarthmore and through the folks at War News Radio that really introduced me this type of journalism. And I think War News Radio in addition to kind of teaching me about audio editing and helping me figure out interviewing and coming up with story ideas. You know, I remember one of our first journalists and resident who mentored us public radio journalist Marty Goldenson told us that, you know no one's gonna know what War News Radio is when you try to get interviews with, you know, some lawmaker about the war in Iraq. So when you call them up, you're talk to their press person you got to mumble with authority, just be like I'm from War News Radio. And, you know if they don't know what it is, just move right along, like you don't know what War News Radio is. And I've been in a way mumbling with authority my entire career. Certainly people know what NPR is but I don't know if they know who I am and it certainly, when I just got started they didn't know who I was. And I felt like an imposter, someone who never went to journalism school and really just learedn by doing. But War News Radio taught me that, you know, I could learn this, this is not out of my reach. That persistence, that curiosity and not fearing being able to make mistakes. I think that's what I really appreciate with War News Radio. It gave us a really unique opportunity to reach people and to make mistakes and to not feel like there is some magical barrier that we need to be ordained before we start calling folks in Iraq. And certainly I think in retrospect in the age of misinformation and disinformation that we lived in I'm also grateful that War News Radio we also approached all that with a really strong sense of responsibility that even though we were not professional journalists that we tried our best as a non journalism students to adhere to a set of standards and to be fair and not to be partisan political, but just to cure voices of people affected by these world altering events.
Jason Zengerle: This is a question that's come up a few times from multiple people. This one's from Ayanna Johnson. This is the one I have in front of me, class of 2009. If you could imagine the ideal census in 2030, what would it look like (e.g, the questions and who would be counted)? How would you communicate about the importance of the census before 2030? Another person asked, you know, if you could snap your fingers and make one change in the census for 2030, what would it be?
Hansi Lo Wang: Well, in terms of the ideal census, I mean, if we're going by the constitution it's an actual enumeration of every person living in the country. That's the goal and I think that's what the constitution calls for but there's never been a perfect US Census. So we'll see what happens there. I think for, you know it's not for me to prescribe the best policy as a reporter, but I will say from perspective as a reporter thinking about all the misinformation and disinformation that I encountered and tracked over the course of the 2020 Census... a lot of people just don't know what the census is. So as someone who is, my job is to inform people about just what the census is and hopefully help give people, give public, give the public enough information to make the decision of what they will do once they get that census invitation and have an opportunity to participate or not. That's, I just hope by 2030 more people just understand what sense, what the census is that it is spoken with at least as much interest and energy amongst more people as voting. And as has elections, I think, you know the census has a hard thing going cause it only happens once every 10 years. You have a lot of newcomers to the country who can come in and be settled in the country, not have gone through a census. And then also know what is this thing. And then they're folks who just, you know, out of sight out of mind and may not have been the person filling out the census form for their household. So there's just a lot going against it. But I think I hope more people will understand how influential these numbers are, these data are.
Jason Zengerle: This and it goes a little bit to the poll that we did which one of the following is the most important reason do you personally issue fill out the census form, and the number one response with 42% was it helps determine funding for public services in my community like schools and fire departments. The second at 22%, there was a tie. It is my civic duty. And then also it determines how many electric representatives my state has in Congress. One question that sort of is threaded throughout this chain is a question about how do you improve the response rate? You know, what are the incentives for households to respond? Someone, Barbara Wang 1990, asks is their entry into a lottery, you know, is there research that suggests that there are ways to get people to respond, whether it's you know, patriotism or pride or self-interest and I guess that's maybe a question to leave on. Like what would actually make people respond to this the census, what would make them more inclined to participate?
Hansi Lo Wang: The Census Bureau would call them trusted messengers. And, you know, it's one thing to hear from the Census Bureau director or to some government officials say, "Hey, there's a census, you should participate!" It's another thing to hear it from your imam, to hear it from your rabbi, to hear it from the community organizer that you work with to organize protests, to hear it from these community leaders, a local community leaders trusted voices, the Census Bureau calls them to hear the same, essentially the same message of what does the Census Bureau or what is the point of the census? How could this affect your daily life but to hear it from folks, because there is this major trust gap that is one of the main barriers to a lot of people participating in the census. There's just a major level of distrust part of that, again, is there is a history of how the, has census information has been misused by the federal government. Part of this is just the general distrust of government and again, recently a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric. And so a lot of work, the Census Bureau relies on or the Bureau relies a lot on the work of community groups. And this is something that they relied on for this 2020 Census, and was really hampered when the Census Bureau was trying to essentially give us a set of talking points to community workers, groups and then were ultimately undermined by presidential memos for example, that said that unauthorized immigrants is a policy of the Trump administration to not count unauthorized immigrants in the portion we got which would go against the messaging that the Census Bureau has been saying from the beginning. And so that is a major challenge and what community groups, what you're seeing even more so through the 2020 Census you see states like California, really stepping up the level of funding from the state government and also private foundations and filling in the gaps by funding a lot of different on the ground activities and outreach to supplement what the Census Bureau is doing. And try to do that in a way that isn't necessarily as constrained by a federal agency trying to put together messages that may not match up with what the administration at the time is trying to push. For example, during the time when there was a citizenship question up in the air and whether or not there would be one and then there was a ruling that there would not be a citizenship question, a lot of census advocates outside of government who were clamoring for the Census Bureau to put out messaging more directly saying, there is no citizenship question. Let's get this out there, a lot of people still don't know this even after the courts ruled, even after the Supreme Court ruled. There are a lot of public members of the public did not know but the Census Bureau did not put out very direct messaging. And this is an example of where our community groups had to, they saw upon themselves that this wasn't necessary in order to encourage participation in order to combat misinformation and some disinformation out there.
Jason Zengerle: I think that's about all we have time for. It's nine o'clock. So that's when we're supposed to stop. I apologize to the people who submitted questions that I did not get to, I tried to combine as many as I could. Hansi, thank you so much. This was terrific.
Hansi Lo Wang: Thank you Jason.
Jason Zengerle: I learned a ton, it was great. Thank you. All right, goodnight guys.
Hansi Lo Wang: Good night, I'm gonna chat here with my email address and my Twitter in case anyone wants to reach out to me later. So check out the chat if you wanna reach out.