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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Milwaukee census undercounts pose issues for representation

In disputing 2020 Census counts, City of Milwaukee seeks recounts for marginalized populations
Cat Carroll

Milwaukee and other major U.S. cities are appealing 2020 Census count results, claiming that pandemic conditions and other factors distorted the results. The miscounts disproportionately impacted prisons, college dorms and military barracks, and some officials say the Census Bureau failed to consider some factors that led to these mistakes.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, after the 2020 Census reported Milwaukee to have its lowest population since 1930, the city organized a challenge with other nearby municipalities that resulted in a gain of more than 800 residents. The challenge was made on the basis that incarcerated individuals at a local jail were wrongly counted in a neighboring community.

Milwaukee has another challenge currently under review, according to AP News, which claims that the city’s true population was undercounted by 16,500 people — mostly people of color.


Wisconsin was not one of the six states that the Census Bureau reported to have significantly undercounted the population of. Given this, what makes the potential mistakes in Milwaukee so important?

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The Census plays a key role in U.S. policymaking. It is critical that systemic issues in census counting and reporting are corrected to provide adequate representation to historically undercounted communities across the country.

Advocates like the Prison Gerrymandering Project argue the Census Bureau counts people in prison unfairly, leading to a lack of representation. Some state legislative districts count the population of large prisons in their district as residents, leaving districts with high incarceration rates but no prison with less electoral sway.

The United States Census Bureau collects the Census every 10 years. In January of 2019, polling began for the 2020 Census. Every household in the United States was asked, but not required, to fill out an online survey detailing things like the number of people in a given household, as well as those individuals’ age, race, gender, income and other demographic information.

The Census serves as a leading tool for policymakers for the decade after it is released. This leaves room for several harmful outcomes when miscounts occur.

The funding of public schools and federally run programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Head Start relies on data from the Census. The U.S. allocates $1.5 trillion in federal funding, according to the Pew Research Center. When miscounts occur, this funding is not spread in an equitable manner, and underserved areas are not given the resources they need to get ahead.

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Incorrect apportionment and redistricting are other dangers of Census miscounts. Representation — both at the state and congressional levels — has a direct impact on the laws that are passed. When already marginalized communities are also being undercounted and subjected to more partisan gerrymandering, those communities are given less of an electoral voice when the Census is inaccurate.

Additionally, long-term public sector investment decisions are made based on data collected from the Census, according to the Population Reference Bureau. The government, as well as non-profit organizations, determines where to build new schools, roads, hospitals and other necessary forms of infrastructure.

Black, Hispanic and Native American populations are the most likely to be undercounted by the Census, according to the Pew Research Center. This issue must be addressed, as distorted census data has been used to discriminate against marginalized communities.

The Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) and Demographic Analysis are two of the tools used to determine the quality of the data collected in the census. The PES, which does not include prisons and college dorms in its process, was conducted after the 2020 Census and estimated that the Hispanic population was undercounted more in 2020 than in the previous two Census years.

The effects of miscounts can be clearly seen in the case of Whiteville, Tennessee. In Whiteville, after a census challenge, the population was adjusted from 2,606 residents to 4,564 residents, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

The change occurred because inmates at a correctional facility were originally overlooked in the count. The correction of this error brought an additional $20,000 to $30,000 a month in population-based revenue from taxes that Tennessee collects and distributes — a significant increase in funds.

Milwaukee’s residents deserve to be counted where they live and should not be at risk of having less of a voice or access to critical funding because of census miscounts.

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The Census Bureau will not alter the existing numbers used for apportionment or redistricting. But, according to the New York Times, the new director of the Census Bureau has acknowledged ways in which the census can improve for 2030, including relying more on government records and less on people filling out the census form, and continuing to establish trust with undercounted groups.

Even if the wins of Milwaukee and other cities seem small on their own, the principle of having the census accurately reflect the U.S. population cannot be overstated. The effectiveness of federal programs, disaster relief and public education depends on accurately counting the groups systematically discriminated against during the census process.

While populations such as college students, incarcerated individuals and members of the military might be at particularly high risk of not being counted in the right location, the fallout affects everyone in their surrounding communities. 

The patterns of the U.S. Census serve as an indicator of an evolving, increasingly diverse American population. The Census tells a story each decade of how our country is changing. It is pertinent that we value the accuracy of the Census to provide adequate resources to historically marginalized communities and populations that would benefit from more federal assistance.

Leah Terry ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and communication arts and pursuing a certificate in public policy. 

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