The Census Bureau is sending mixed signals about when it plans to finish efforts to count every person living in the U.S. for the 2020 census amid growing concerns among Democrats in Congress that the White House is pressuring the bureau to stop counting soon for political gain.
About 4 out of 10 households nationwide have not been counted yet, and census self-response rates are even lower in many communities.
Cutting short the final weeks of counting increases the risk of leaving out many people of color, immigrants and other members of historically undercounted groups from numbers that are collected once a decade to determine each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal tax dollars for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services.
In April, the bureau and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a Trump appointee who oversees the bureau, asked Congress to extend the legal deadlines for reporting census results because the bureau said it needed extra time to complete the constitutionally mandated head count during the coronavirus pandemic. Only Democrats have introduced legislation that would grant that request.
The bureau now says, however, it is "working to complete data collection as soon as possible, as it strives to comply with the law and statutory deadlines."
That update was quietly posted on the bureau's website Wednesday, when a key reference to Oct. 31 — the new end date the bureau had been working under for conducting in-person interviews with households that have not filled out a census form — was removed.
Arturo Vargas — CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, which is helping to promote census participation — called the update to the bureau's website "alarming."
"We are concerned over what seems to be an abandonment of the request for the additional time that both the White House and Census Bureau have already acknowledged is required for a full and accurate census," Vargas said in a statement. "It is too late now for the Bureau to change course, and the next COVID-19 relief legislation should reflect that reality."
The White House, according to the bureau's updated webpage, did ask for an additional $1 billion to fund "accelerated efforts" for completing counting "as quickly, and safely as possible." In their proposal for relief aid released on Monday, Republicans in Congress offered less than half of that amount with no deadline extensions.
During a hearing Wednesday before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Steven Dillingham — the bureau's director and a Trump appointee — gave lawmakers little insight into why the timing change was made.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., repeatedly asked Dillingham whether he supports the bureau's request to extend the census deadlines.
But Dillingham did not answer the questions.
Asked by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., if he was aware that the Trump administration reportedly wants to quickly wrap up counting so that the president can receive the census apportionment numbers by the end of the year, Dillingham replied: "I'm not aware of all the many reasons except to say that the Census Bureau and others really want us to proceed as rapidly as possible."
Pressed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Dillingham said he "can't agree" with Olson's assessment, noting the bureau has "many more assessments ahead of us here."
"President Trump and Mitch McConnell are demanding the American people finance their political manipulation of our democracy," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the House oversight committee, said in a statement after the hearing. "Rushing the census to completion means that census workers will not have enough time to follow up on the non-responses, an essential operation designed to find and count the hardest to reach communities."
The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House press office have not responded to NPR's requests for comment.
Abandoning Oct. 31 as the end date for counting would throw the census, already upended by months of delays, deeper into turmoil as hundreds of thousands of the bureau's door knockers try to figure out how to conduct in-person interviews as many states grapple with growing coronavirus outbreaks in the middle of hurricane season.
"That date doesn't mean anything to me after today," a Census Bureau official told NPR on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from superiors for speaking out.
"It's embarrassing because we have been discussing this in presentations and conversations with staff," the official added. "I'm hurt that they 'suddenly' changed their minds."
But local census offices in New England, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico are still scheduled to continue door-knocking through the end of October, according to Jeff Behler, director for the bureau's New York regional office.
"Are we doing anything to accelerate?" Behler said Thursday during a press briefing organized by the Association for a Better New York. "I would say, not really."
On Wednesday, during a hearing full of nonanswers and roundabout responses to lawmakers' questions, Dillingham did appear certain about at least one topic.
The director of the Census Bureau testified that he first learned about Trump's plans to attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census numbers used to reapportion seats in Congress not from any internal discussions, but from a news report "late on a Friday" that said "such a directive may be coming down."
Gomez, another House member who joined the hearing remotely to question Dillingham, left the bureau's director with a stern warning before stepping away from the camera.
"It seems like there's an obvious pattern that you're not in control of the Census Bureau," Gomez said. "Your name will go down in history if this is the worst census ever conducted by the United States government. You're not going to run away and say that this was only because of the Trump administration later on. You will be responsible."