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Census proceeds with $500 million marketing plan for embattled 2020 Census

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The 2020 Census faces legal challenges regarding the potential undercount of minorities and residents who may not be U.S. citizens. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

The Census Bureau on Monday unveiled the $500 million communication platform for the 2020 count of the nation’s population – “Shape your future. START HERE.” The release comes as the decennial count remains mired in litigation brought by several states and the NAACP.

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The 2020 Census faces legal challenges regarding the potential undercount of minorities and residents who may not be U.S. citizens, including residents of metro Atlanta. Credit: David Pendered

A statement from the Census Bureau director appears to respond to concerns raised in lawsuits. Judges have ruled against the Census process in at least two cases:

  • The NAACP contends in U.S. District Court in Maryland the counting process is underfunded and will result in an undercount of blacks and other minorities, leading to a lack of congressional representation and federal funding for non-white communities. A judge ruled in favor of the NAACP in January.
  • New York and other states contend in U.S. District Court in Manhattan a question about citizenship added by the Trump administration will result in an undercount of some respondents. A judge ruled in favor of the states in January.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, a career federal executive who was sworn into the position Jan. 7, said in the statement released Monday:

  • “We undertook an unprecedented amount of research to help us learn more about what potential barriers, attitudes and motivators America had about participating in the upcoming census.
  • “The 2020 platform arose from that research, and has been rigorously tested to ensure that our campaign effectively communicates that when the public responds to the 2020 Census, they will know they are helping to shape the future of their community for the next 10 years.”

The statement goes on to describe the outreach efforts intended to reach the public. Questions are to be delivered in English and 12 other languages. The statement said the $500 million communications platform is intended to allow the Census Bureau partners:

Steven Dillingham

Steven Dillingham

  • “[T]o determine how they can complement the $500 million communications campaign created by the Census Bureau and VMLY&R.”

The agency, VMLY&R, was created in September through the merger of VML and Y&R, according to a statement released following the merger. Y&R is the former Young & Rubicam, which in 2016 won the Census 2020 account, which at the time was estimated at $415 million, according to a report by adage.com.

The statement comes on the heels of a Jan. 29 ruling in the case brought by NAACP and a Jan. 15 ruling in a case brought by New York and other states.

In ruling for the NAACP, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Grimm supported the NAACP contentions that the Census Bureau does not now have sufficient funding appropriated to pay for an accurate count. The recent governmental shutdown didn’t help the bureau’s case, Grimm wrote:

  • “I can judicially notice that the Bureau endured a 35-day lapse in appropriations during the recent partial shutdown of the federal government….
  • “Additionally, it appears that printing of the census questionnaire is imminent, as it ‘is set to take place this summer,’ yet “the company contracted to print the forms went bankrupt” and the Bureau has not “announce[d] a new one” (and may not be able to pay one this summer), which strengthens Plaintiffs’ argument [NAACP] that Defendants [Census Bureau] cannot prepare without proper funding.”

In a ruling dated Jan. 15, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, of U.S. District Court in New York, ruled against the decision by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to include the question about citizenship. Furman outlined a number of responsibilities that go into the crafting of the decennial census – including complying with congressional policy and following lawful procedures – and concluded:

  • “Measured against these standards, Secretary Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census – even if it did not violate the Constitution itself – was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside. To conclude otherwise and let Secretary Ross’s decision stand would undermine the proposition – central to the rule of law – that ours is a ‘government of the people, and not of men.’”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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