Census 2020 Liaison For New Mexico Robert Rhatigan Stresses Importance Of Complete Count

Robert Rhatigan.jpg

New Mexico State Liaison with the U. S. Census Bureau Robert Rhatigan answers questions Wednesday  during the Legislative Preview at Fuller Lodge. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


Robert Rhatigan, Associate Director for the University of New Mexico Geospatial and Population Studies Group and New Mexico liaison with the U.S. Census Bureau expressed the importance of a complete count during the 2020 Census Process Wednesday at the 2019 Legislative Preview hosted by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women.

Rhatigan noted that while there is no mandate for any state, county or city government to be involved in the 2020 Census, there is certainly a lot of incentive.

The reason it’s enshrined in our Constitution is for congressional apportionment. The good news is that we are not at risk of losing one of our three representatives and we’re not on the bubble of potentially gaining a fourth so we don’t have anything to lose here. That’s one piece of good news that I have,” Rhatigan said.

He said in 2021, there will be redistricting done of the state congressional districts, state senate districts, school districts, voting districts in every state and the apportionment will be based on the census count.

“So if there are certain communities, certain demographics of people that are not fully counted, they will not be adequately represented in elected bodies for the next 10 years,” Rhatigan said.

He said with regard to data quality, he can’t even begin to wrap his own head around the amount of data that will be impacted by a bad census and that any data that has a per capita or demographic component can be traced back to the last decennial census.

:”If we’re looking at unemployment rates – there’s a per capita component – the number of people at risk of being unemployed. If there’s a mistake in 2020, that will impact and give us bad numbers on unemployment rates for the next 10 years. If we’re looking at per capita income, same thing. If we’re looking at population projections – school districts need to plan ahead, they need project population. They don’t need to just know what their community looks like in 2020, they need to anticipate what it’s going to look like in 2030 and 2040. The foundations for those projections are in the most recent decennial census,” Rhatigan said.

He said in the case of epidemiology for tracking the rates of cancer incidents, a bad census count is going to give the state misleading rates and prevent identification of a problem while there’s still time to do something about it.

Rhatigan said last but not least, the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government allocates the state government as well as the local governments and individuals is based on the decennial census count. He presented research from George Washington University that attempted to quantify the financial impact the census has in the event an undercount would happen.

“It just looks at the top 16 programs where there is some per capita component in the program and for the state of New Mexico we’re looking at $6.2 billion. This research has been expanded on to look at several hundred programs and that figure goes up to $7.8 billion a year that comes into the state of New Mexico some through the Legislature, some through other mechanisms. Based on the decennial census, that’s about $3,000 per New Mexican for one year,” Rhatigan said. “And this error gets carried forward until 2030 when we have our net census.”

If an individual doesn’t get counted that is going to cost the state of New Mexico approximately $30,000 over the next 10 years. Rhatigan said.  If a household doesn’t get counted, the average household in New Mexico is about 2.5 or 2.6 people, so now the state is looking at $100,000.

“If we’re looking at an immigrant household – that household that I’m most concerned about – the ones that are most likely not to participate in the census. Some of these are very large households with five, six, seven, eight people. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that could potentially be lost because the head of that household chose not to complete the census form,” he said.

Rhatigan said the 2020 Census is very likely to be the first census in many decades that was poorer than the previous census. He said the 2010 Census by every measure was very much a success and far better than the census conducted in 2000 but that the state is not looking at that scenario.

“So why am I so concerned? The citizenship question is a big concern. It’s certainly going to turn off undocumented residents of our state but it is also going to turn off the immigrant community at large. It is going to turn off the Hispanic community at large – anybody sympathetic to the immigrant community is turned off by this question whether or not they’re aware of the impacts it’s going to have,” he said.

Rhatigan said the Census Bureau is right now funded at an adequate level but that it doesn’t make up for the inadequate funding they had for fiscal years 2014, 2015 and 2016 when critical testing was supposed to be done.

“The 2010 Census cost $13 billion to conduct and Congress made it very clear to the Census Bureau sometime around  2012 that it was not going to get a penny more for the next census, not going to get the double the budget that’s the history – that typically doubles every 10 years,” he said, adding that Congress wants the Census Bureau to figure out how to do this census for $13 billion less not taking into account inflation or that the number of households in the country has increased by several million.

The Census Bureau came up with some really innovative cost-saving measures but they didn’t have the chance to test them during those critical years in the middle of the decade, Rhatigan said,  so now they’re going to have to make the decision to go forward with untested innovations or to revert to the old way of doing it at a cost that they’re not going to receive from Congress.

“The IT infrastructure and security is a huge concern. The Census Bureau is anticipating that about 60 percent of the country will complete the census online. This will all happen in a two-week window centered around April 1, 2020. As you all recall when the Affordable Care Act rolled out there was a lot of traffic going through a federal website and it crashed that federal website and it was weeks or months before they could fix that problem,” he said. “We’re talking about far more traffic and there’s just no way to test for this until you turn on the switch and see what happens.”

Rhatigan said there’s also concern about third parties gaining access to the data whether it be a foreign country or a teenage hacker in a basement and that there’s a lot of valid concern about how secure the data will be.

The federal shutdown is a concern. Part of the Census Bureau continues to operate because paid out of the decennial census budget but that doesn’t even cover half the employees at the Census Bureau. The rest of them are furloughed.

Rhatigan said Title 13 of U.S. Code protects everybody’s responses to the Census and they will not be shared for a period of 72 years with anyone outside the Census Bureau which includes other federal agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and Immigration Control.

“Nobody from the Census Bureau is going to share individual data with law enforcement or anybody else. The perception that that data will be shared with other agencies has already done a lot of damage and has discouraged a lot of people from wanting to participate in the census, even people who are U.S. citizens,” he said.

He said every resident of New Mexico should be counted April 1, 2010 and that it doesn’t matter whether or not they are here with papers or without.

“They’re residing in New Mexico. They should be counted,” Rhatigan said, adding that Los Alamos County had a response rate of 80 percent for the initial contact in the 2010 census but that in Catron and Lincoln Counties that response was less than 40 percent. He said the non-response follow-up is incredibly costly, accounting for the largest share of the $13 billion nationwide.

“With the citizenship question I can assure you we will have a higher national non-response rate than we did in 2010 and Congress will probably not give the Census Bureau the money they need to do a thorough and adequate non-response follow-up,” he said.

Rhatigan said he is an employee of the University of New Mexico and not in a position in which he  will make direct requests of the state Legislature.

“But I what I can tell you what other states are doing and what I think is best practice for all the states in our union. The first is the state needs to call a complete count commission. A complete count commission or a complete count committee is nothing more than any group of people who are concerned about an accurate count,” he said.

Many states have an executive order to establish a complete count commission and then the Legislature in those states will allot appropriate funding. He said because of the difficulty of counting a state like New Mexico and looking at some research from other states, he thinks a figure of around $10 million is appropriate for the state of New Mexico.

For more information, call Robert Rhatigan, 505.277.4034 ot email rhatigan@unm.edu