The U.S. Census Bureau undercounted Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans for the 2020 census, new government data shows – an omission likely to affect political representation and federal funding for minority communities for years to come.

The national population count every 10 years is used to draw legislative maps for both state and federal elected offices in all 50 states. It’s also used to allocate $1.5 trillion in federal money for everything from public housing to healthcare to road construction.

The census has been overcounting whites and Asians for decades while undercounting people of color. But the trend was noticeably magnified for the 2020 census, according to a  Census Bureau report released this month. The minority undercount was “larger in magnitude” than for 2010, according to the Census Bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey, performed to assess the national headcount’s accuracy. 

All told, the survey estimates 18.8 million people weren’t counted who should have been. The census counted an estimated 323.2 million total households, up from 300.7 million in 2010. The 2020 census-takers faced a formidable challenge in trying to account for everyone just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing a national shut-down just weeks before the April 1, 2020 deadline, census officials said.

An estimated 5% of Latinos were not included in the 2020 count – over three times the undercount estimate for the 2010 census. Similarly, over 3% of Blacks were not counted.  Native Americans and Native Alaskans on reservations were undercounted by over 5%, the report said, a greater error margin than in 2010.

Minorities weren’t the only groups undercounted. People under the age of 50, children under the age of four, men, and renters also are underrepresented, while those over age 50, women, and homeowners are overrepresented, according to the survey.

These undercounts, especially among Latinos, will have serious consequences for political representation, education funding and accessing adequate healthcare, according to Latino policy expert Gabriel Sanchez, a governance fellow at The Brookings Institution and political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

“There are economic consequences for all communities of color that were undercounted that will last a full decade,” Sanchez told Atlanta Civic Circle

“It’s devastating for resources and the distribution of those resources to communities who desperately need it,” he said. “For each person who is under-counted, that could be [a loss of] as much as $200,000 per person over a 10-year-span. That’s a scary proposition.”

Latinos are particularly susceptible to being undercounted, he explained, because of a higher proportion of undocumented immigrants who fear disclosing information to the government. 

In Congress: Latinos make up 18% of the U.S. population but only 9% of the House of Representatives. At the state level, Latinos are even more underrepresented, accounting for only 4% of state lawmakers.

In Education: Undercounts will greatly impact federally funded early-education programs. Funding for the federal Pell Grant, a need-based program that awards up to $6,495 per person annually for college,  and student loan programs also is determined by census counts, Sanchez noted. Nearly one in five Pell Grant recipients are Latino, he said, so any cuts to the program’s funding would have a dire impact on the Latino community.

In Healthcare: Undercounts affect funding for federal healthcare programs, such as Medicaid. That would put many Latinos in a precarious situation, Sanchez said, since they make up one-third of all Medicaid recipients.

Undercounts and redistricting

Grassroots get-out-the-vote groups in Georgia – fueled largely by people of color – helped put Joe Biden in the White House and two Democratic senators in Congress in the most recent election cycle. 

Now, Georgia lawmakers and voting rights groups are entangled in redistricting challenges.

Plaintiffs representing Black and Latino voters sought a temporary injunction to stop Georgia from using the new state legislative and congressional maps for the 2022 elections. In three lawsuits filed in late December, they said the redrawn maps dilute the voting strength of Black voters and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But earlier this month, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia allowed Georgia to use its new maps for this year’s elections. 

“Black and brown voters in Georgia still lack the adequate amount of [political] representation. I can’t say how much of that is directly tied to a census undercount, but I know it doesn’t help it either,” Democratic political consultant Theron Johnson told Atlanta Civic Circle. Johnson is the Georgia director of All On The Line, a Democratic group founded to combat gerrymandering that’s funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

New population demographics

The first data set from the 2020 Census was released in April 2021, and the findings from the Post-Enumeration Survey aren’t expected to change the U.S. population count of 331.4 million.

While the United States has become more ethnically diverse since the last census a decade ago,, whites still make up the majority, 57.8%, of the population. However, that’s down from 63.7% in 2010. Latinos, at 18.7%, made up the second-largest ethnic group, and Blacks comprise 12.1% of the population, the survey said.

The federal census shows Georgia is more ethnically and racially diverse than a decade ago – and also more urban, with most residents living in the greater metro areas of cities like Atlanta, Savannah, and Macon.

The Post-Enumeration Survey did not provide a state-by-state demographic breakdown. But an Urban Institute report from November found the 2020 census undercounted Georgians by about 1%, or 124,438 people, out of a state population of 10.7 million. That includes 58,098 metro Atlantans. 

The nonprofit research group found whites were overcounted, but Latinos were undercounted by 2.85% and Blacks by 2.7%. What’s more, homes with at least one noncitizen were undercounted by 3.6%. 

Read more about the consequences of the Latino undercount in Sanchez’s Brookings article here.

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