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Why a U.S. Census undercount could severely hurt Utah

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A census taker knocks on the door of a residence Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla.

John Raoux, Associated Press

The U.S. Census, the systematic enumeration of every person in the country, may seem abstract or bureaucratic, but the census has crucial implications for each of us. This year, the 2020 census is under threat, and that is cause for alarm. Institutions that are afraid of the power of the American people attempt to erode it by disrupting the census. Thus, it is unquestionably in the best interest of all Utahns that we are accurately counted.

In 2020, with bipartisan support and persistent advocacy spearheaded by Rep. Karen Kwan, the Utah Legislature set aside $1 million to fund Complete Count Committees to coordinate community outreach throughout the state. Thanks to this funding, Utah currently ranks 10th in the nation for census completion.

Utah, however, is still far behind our 2010 response rates, with over 30% of households still uncounted, especially in rural counties. An undercount of Utahns will lead to devastating funding cuts statewide, with a disproportionate impact on people who already face the greatest barriers to needed services. As state policymakers and longtime experts in our respective fields of education and public health policy, we implore you to complete the census. 

The Constitution mandates that all people in the U.S. be counted in order to provide fair political representation, which is a vital aspect of a functional democracy. Ultimately, the census does even more than inform state and federal political redistricting. Essential services, like schools, roads, disaster response and public health, all receive funding based on census counts. Here in Utah, many important laws addressing issues like taxation, employment and transportation funding rely on census data. In rural areas, the data is especially important for effective policy implementation.

The challenges facing the census in 2020 have been numerous. Nearly three years ago, the current administration began an unsuccessful bid to include a question about respondents’ U.S. citizenship status. Because the Supreme Court struck down the question as unconstitutional, the census does not ask for any information about citizenship, but the damage may already be done. Years of rhetoric falsely implying an association between the census and surveillance against immigrants has created distrust and fear. Experts say that heightened levels of suspicion will lead to a particularly severe undercount of immigrants.

Recently, the Trump administration moved up the deadline for census data collection by one month, to Sept. 30, despite the request of the U.S. Census Bureau to extend the deadline. In the midst of a pandemic that has made it much harder for the Census Bureau to employ its traditional strategies for collecting an accurate count, this change means that there is even less time to gather data from historically hard-to-count populations, which include those who live in rental properties or rural communities, and people who lack internet access or English literacy.

Regardless of stated or implied motivations behind an undercount of Utah’s residents, the impact has significant potential to harm our state. The taxes you pay to the federal government are at risk of being reapportioned to other states for programs that have been deemed critical for economic viability, including health care, education, transportation and much more.

We cannot allow our power as Utahns to be eroded by a statewide undercount. Complete the U.S. Census and encourage your friends and family to do the same. You have several options, online at 2020census.gov, a paper questionnaire that may have been mailed to you in April, or by phone in English at (844) 330-2020 or in Spanish at (844) 468-2020.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay and Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, are members of the Utah House of Representatives.

Correction: A previous version misspelled the names of the authors. The correct spellings are Carol Spackman Moss, not Carol Spackman; and Jen Dailey-Provost, not Jen Daily-Provost.