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The 2020 United States census is underway. If you’re an undergraduate that lived on-campus pre-COVID-19, you’re all set — the Census Bureau has established a program that allows college students who’d normally be living on-campus right now to be counted through their universities, despite the recent mass exodus of students from their college dorms.
Historically, college students have been a difficult group to accurately account for, with students often counted in both their college addresses and their parents' addresses. COVID-19 has posed additional challenges, forcing the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations and on Monday, to request Congress approve a four-month delay in the 2020 count.
The U.S. Census Bureau's decision to delay the 2020 census amid incredibly confounding circumstances only makes sense. The U.S. census is of paramount importance. It determines federal and state funding, which in 2015 alone, amounted to over 675 billion dollars. Census data is used by researchers, companies, and policymakers alike. Maintaining the integrity of this data is crucial to ensure that governmental and private sector actors at least have the option of making decisions based on the country’s demographic reality.
Congressional apportionment, per the Constitution's mandate, is also based upon census data; state redistricting typically is as well. As such, undercounting can have very negative functional effects. Racial and ethnic minorities such as black and Hispanic populations, as well as Native Americans living on reservations, have been historically undercounted, which has resulted in both a loss of federal funding and political representation for these groups. Though the administration of the 2020 census has been complicated by COVID-19, it is imperative that the U.S. Census Bureau not neglect its efforts to mitigate these inaccuracies as it weathers unexpected challenges.
The Census Bureau's new policy for counting college students presents further representation-related conundrums. College students may spend the majority of the year on campus and regularly use their college town's public services (think public transit). However, most of us vote in our hometowns. Counting all college students that typically reside in on-campus housing as residents of where they go to school likely inflates the political representation of college towns, as a sizable chunk of their residents don’t vote there.
While in liberal Cambridge this may not be a major issue, many universities have student bodies with more progressive politics than the perhaps rural, conservative towns these schools reside in. In such a scenario, college students are “represented” by politicians with agendas often distinct from their own. In light of these electoral issues, the multipurpose nature of the U.S. census — to both administer federal funds and determine political representation — begs for more critical thought.
Moreover, Harvard’s decision to have students vacate campus in response to coronavirus should remind us that our residency in Cambridge is not guaranteed. In times of acute crisis, most of us head home; those of who stayed had to apply for the chance to do so. Though we all are beneficiaries of many of Cambridge’s services and resources, most of us ultimately define our permanent residency elsewhere.
The challenges of administering the census during the coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated the anachronistic nature of using a traditional headcount of the population even with the availability of modern statistical sampling methods. The system isn’t perfect, and quite frankly, we haven’t reached a consensus on how to fix it. Though in the long term we must look to address the systemic inequities inherent in the current census methodology, for this year we urge community members to continue to fill out the census and ensure that they are counted.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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