The U.S. census is critically important. Is Florida taking it seriously?

By: - June 25, 2019 7:00 am

Census field work is on pause. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

We’re still months away from the official 2020 U.S. census count, and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration doesn’t seem to be that engaged with making sure Florida is prepared.

The census – a tally that provides an accurate, official count of all Americans, including Florida – happens once every decade. And if the state doesn’t successfully count everyone, it could affect Florida’s fair share of federal funding and also how many representatives the state gets in Congress.

Kenneth Prewett, the U.S. Census Bureau’s director from 1998 to 2001, told the Phoenix that when it comes to allocating federal funds by using official census counts, “This is a fixed pot that gets allocated … So if Florida does not participate in a major effort to have a high turnout census, then somebody else will benefit – Texas or New York or California, or who knows?”

More than 20 states have allocated funding for the census, led by California’s massive $100 million commitment. Illinois is spending $29 million. Colorado is spending $6 million, and even nearby red-state Georgia committed $1.5 million and created its own informational website.

And Florida?

“The federal government does that. We don’t have a role in it,” the governor told the Tampa Bay Times this month when asked if he would take action to prepare for the census.

Florida Democrats say DeSantis can do more to raise awareness about how important it is for citizens to fill out the census. Several state lawmakers called on him this month to sign an executive order creating a Census Statewide Complete Count Committee, something that many other states and communities are doing. According to the official U.S. Census Bureau website,  Complete Count Committees are a “broad spectrum of government and community leaders from education, business, healthcare and other community organizations” joining together to create awareness about the census.

State Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, co-sponsored a legislative proposal this spring to create a Complete Count Committee. It went nowhere in the legislative session.

“You haven’t seen one Republican sign on and say this is a nonpartisan issue,” complains Osceola County Democratic state Sen. Victor Torres. “This is common sense. This is how we bring in more money for our state, for our constituents, but these guys don’t want to step up to the plate.”

It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, says Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who was governor of Florida the last time the census came around. Crist appointed 45 Floridians to serve on a Complete Count Committee in 2009, representing different groups to ensure an accurate count of the Florida population.

“There was no Republican opposition that I heard when we did it ten years ago,” the St. Petersburg congressman told the Phoenix. “People understood counting every person in Florida for the purpose of the census was so critical to the future of our state, whether you’re talking about interstates, infrastructure investment, what have you.”

The nonprofit group Florida Tax Watch says that in fiscal year 2015, Florida received fewer federal grants per capita than every other state in the nation. The watchdog agency issued a report last month, imploring state and local leaders to start addressing the issue by participating in existing “intergovernmental processes to verify addresses and residences.”

The census count faces numerous challenges this time around. For the first time, Americans will be able to take the census online. That’s great for those of you reading this story right now on an electronic device, but it’s a barrier for those who have no internet access. The U.S. Census Bureau also says it will hire between 350,000 – 375,000 “enumerators” (a/k/a census takers) out in the field later this year – a cut from the 516,000 census takers employed in 2010.

Florida gained two congressional seats after the 2010 census because the count showed increased population, and projections have the state gaining two more seats after the 2020 census. That would give Florida 29 seats in all, placing it third only behind California and Texas in the number of elected leaders in Washington.

But academic studies published within the past year found that if the official census has errors – such as undercounting the number of people living in Florida – it could shift the projection for how many new congressional seats Florida gets after the 2020 count.

One key factor will be whether the U.S. Census Bureau mandates a question about citizenship, which the Trump administration is fighting in the U.S. Supreme Court to include in the survey for the first time in 70 years.

If undocumented immigrants don’t answer the citizenship question because they are afraid, it could mean that census takers won’t get an accurate count of how many people live here. And that could affect federal funding for Florida programs, such as highway construction, subsidized early childhood education, Medicaid for needy families, food stamps, and government housing for the poor.

The U.S. census is supposed to accurately count the number and types of people living in America – not just the number of citizens. You don’t want, for example, government funding and political representation to be doled out based on a count of 100,000 when there are actually 150,000 people in a community.

Adding a citizenship question is likely to create a severe undercount of the estimated 775,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center.

One researcher, Northwestern University statistics professor Bruce Spencer, has an even more worrisome prediction. Despite Florida’s population growth, he says, the state is unlikely to get the two congressional seats many are hoping for. Why? Sullivan co-wrote a 2018 report which analyzes the number of uncounted people during the 2010 census and uses those figures to project what will happen in 2020. And he’s not the only researcher drawing that conclusion. A report from the Urban Institute published earlier this month also projects even more undercounted people – that study says 200,000 Latinos and 143,000 blacks might not be counted. Another study published earlier this year by researchers Amanda K. Baumle from the University of Houston and Dudley L. Poston Jr. from Texas A&M University came to the same conclusion.

If the research bears out, these projections could mean a significantly reduced count for the nation’s third-biggest state.

No state is more prepared to get its fair share of federal dollars than California, which created a state agency devoted exclusively to the census after finding that it had a large undercount in the 1990 census.

“We are really focusing on our local partners and local communities,” says Diana Crofts-Pelayo, the communications chief for California Complete Count. “They are going to know their neighbors the best and we really believe that one of the ways to ensure a complete count in our state is really depending on trusted messengers with trusted messages.”

Whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court allows the federal Commerce Dept. to include the citizenship question, the damage may already be done in terms of deterring undocumented Latinos from completing the census, says former U.S. Census Bureau Director Prewett.

The paranoia may be hard to overcome. Twelve years ago, government records confirmed that despite decades of denial, the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and addresses of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

While the state hasn’t moved forward to create a Complete Count Committee, many local governments in Florida are taking the initiative.

Last month in Tampa, the Hillsborough Complete Count Committee held a kickoff event with over 60 civic leaders. And the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties are providing information and training to local governments about the census. Still, experts say that without a coordinated statewide effort, Florida risks losing out on federal funding it’s entitled to.

“This is one of the most important and pressing issues that we’re dealing with in the upcoming year,” says state Sen. Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County, “and we need to make sure that Florida is ready for the census.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.