With Census Count Finishing Early, Fears of a Skewed Tally Rise

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Some state and local officials in areas with diverse, hard-to-count populations reacted with dismay.

“Oh God,” said Shameka S. Reynolds, the mayor of Lithonia, Ga. “Covid-19 is on the rise in our county, and it was already hard, to be honest with you, in previous years. It was hard trying to get people to get their mailings in and do it.”

Ms. Reynolds, who became mayor of the small, majority-Black suburban city this year, said about 44 percent of residents had responded to the census. “Now we no longer have until October, so it’s shrinking the time, and it’s kind of messing me up,” she said. “Now we’ve got to get creative.”

Lithonia is in DeKalb County, a sprawling expanse of 760,000 people east of Atlanta that is typical of the places that are hardest to get an accurate population count. The local chamber of commerce says it is the most ethnically diverse county in the Southeast, with at least 64 languages spoken.

The stakes are tremendous: The county’s chief executive, Michael Thurmond, has estimated that with a full count, DeKalb County could receive $1.8 billion per year in federal funding over the next 10 years. A serious undercount could leave billions of dollars on the table for public safety, public health, immunizations, Head Start programs, summer jobs programs and more.

“It’s just disheartening,” Larry Johnson, a DeKalb County commissioner, said on Tuesday. All three officials are Democrats.

The Census Bureau said in its announcement that it planned to mount “a robust field data collection operation” to meet the new deadline, and that it would be able to complete the 2020 census in a short time “without sacrificing completeness.” Beyond saying it would hire more people and give its army of door-knockers awards for extra work, it has offered few details of how it plans to meet the new goal.

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