The 2020 Census: The problem with undercounts

Census logos together horiz

The framers of the U.S. Constitution chose population to be the basis for sharing political power, not wealth or land.

In order to accurately do that, we conduct a census every ten years. The goal of the census is to count the entire population of the United States (at the locations where each person lives) in order to fairly disperse federal funds and apportion representatives across states based on population. The goal is to count everyone once—and only once—in the right place.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Miscounting during the census

It’s not an easy undertaking—counting millions of people—and mistakes will happen. The census can overcount and undercount people. In an overcount, some people are counted more than once. In an undercount, some people aren’t counted at all.

And it’s not just a handful of people who are miscounted. In 2010, the census missed an estimated 16 million people. That’s nearly 5% of the population. Although that might seem like a small percentage, it has big consequences for undercounted communities.

In 2010, North Minneapolis was undercounted by more than 7,000 people. This resulted in a loss of two city council members and almost $200 million in federal funding over 10 years. By undercounting such a significant portion of the population, residents lost political power and representation that would protect their interests, as well as crucial funding for schools, hospitals, roads, Medicaid, and other programs.

That’s not the outcome the U.S. Census Bureau hopes for. Their goal is to get as accurate a count as possible. They’ve identified populations that tend to be undercounted and populations that tend to be overcounted in an effort to get more accurate numbers.

Undercounts: Hard-to-count populations

Hard-to-count populations are difficult to count for a variety of reasons. Some have trouble participating in the census if there’s a language barrier, they have low literacy rates, or they lack internet access. Some don’t want to participate in the census if they distrust the government. And some are merely unaware. Those living in apartments, the highly mobile, and those experiencing homelessness are difficult for the census to find, contact, and count.

Populations that fall into the hard-to-count category are young children, the highly mobile, racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, those experiencing homelessness, low-income persons, and those living in multi-family housing.


Communities that tend to be overcounted are affluent and white populations. When a child is away at college, they can be counted both at school and at home by their parents. Those who own more than one home can also be counted at both locations.

Why are overcounts and undercounts harmful?

When a community is undercounted, fewer federal dollars are sent there. When a community is overcounted, more federal dollars are sent there. The disproportionate allocation of nearly a trillion dollars of funding further exacerbates inequities across the country.

In communities where residents rely on federally-funded programs, reduced funding can have a huge impact. This puts more pressure on social service nonprofits to meet needs that were once fulfilled through federal funding.

Beyond funding allocation, population data is crucial for development. Businesses use this information to determine where to build new stores or factories—decisions that can create jobs and improve the local economy.

Undercounting can also affect important political representation. Depending on the extent of an undercount, a state could lose seats in the House of Representatives. Currently, Minnesota has eight representatives whose job is to advocate for Minnesotans and their interests. The state is in danger of losing one of these representatives if we are not accurately counted.

What Neighborhood House is doing to help get an accurate count

Because Neighborhood House works with many populations that are identified as “hard-to-count,” we’re focusing our efforts in the coming months on census awareness and education. Through the month of March and April, we’re providing help days where anyone in the community can come in and receive help filling out the census. If you or someone you know would like help completing the census, visit the Wellstone Center during any of the dates and times below.

Census Help Days from March 10 – April 9
Tuesdays: 8:30 – 10:30 a.m.
Wednesday: 1:30 – 3:30 p.m.
Thursdays: 2:30 – 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
April 1 (Census Day!): 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.