U.S. starves 2020 census of funding, threatens undercount - NY lawsuit

By Jonathan Stempel
U.S. Census pamphlets and paperwork are pictured iin the Manhattan borough of New York City

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new lawsuit in New York accuses the Trump administration of starving the U.S. Census Bureau of funding needed to avert an undercount of racial and ethnic minorities in the 2020 census, and deprive them of crucial federal funds and political representation.

The Brooklyn-based nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy Action and the city of Newburgh, New York accused the government on Tuesday of arbitrarily, capriciously and irrationally slashing resources to count blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the homeless and other members of "hard-to-count" communities.

They hope to set aside decisions to hire one-third as many enumerators who physically visit homes as in 2010, halve census field offices and reduce community outreach, while ensuring that the government conduct the "actual enumeration" required by the U.S. Constitution.

"Defendants have been operating on the cheap," refusing even to tap more than $1 billion left over from prior appropriations, CPD Action's and Newburgh's complaint said. "Given the size and scope of the decennial census, immediate relief is necessary."

The nonprofit represents workers, minorities and immigrants.

Census data are used to award billions of dollars of federal funds, as well as political representation. Critics of undercounting believe many hard-to-count communities are in areas more likely to vote for Democrats.

The Census Bureau is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which declined to comment on the lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau chief Steven Dillingham are also defendants.

Tuesday's lawsuit came four weeks after the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, heard arguments on whether to revive a similar lawsuit by the NAACP and Prince George's County, Maryland.

A lower court judge dismissed that case in August, saying Congress' current $3.55 billion census appropriation mooted the plaintiffs' funding claim.

Both sets of plaintiffs are represented by students from Yale Law School's Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic.

Undercounting causes "irreparable harm," Lisa Chen, one of the students, said in an interview. "We are focused on having the bureau spend money that has already been appropriated."

The lawsuit followed Republican President Donald Trump's July 11 abandonment of his quest for a citizenship question on the census.

Critics said the question would have helped Republicans by lowering responses in Democratic-leaning areas.

House of Representatives Democrats on Tuesday sued Ross and U.S. Attorney General William Barr to enforce subpoenas related to an investigation of the citizenship question.

Newburgh is 65 miles (105 km) north of New York City, and has many black, Hispanic and undocumented people among its roughly 28,000 population. Its 57% response rate in the 2010 census was among the lowest in New York state.

The case is Center for Popular Democracy Action et al v Bureau of the Census et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-10917.


(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)