“The People, Power, and Money Behind the 2020 Census”: Hansi Lo Wang Visits Swarthmore

Hansi Lo Wang ʼ09, a national correspondent for NPR known best for his coverage of the 2020 census, visited Swarthmore on Nov. 12 for the final installment of the Lang Center’s Civic Journalism lecture series this semester.  

In his lecture, Wang emphasized the immense role of the 2020 census in the distribution of political power and highlighted the importance of reporting on changes made to the census. Prior to the lecture, the political science department hosted a dinner for on-campus journalists, where Wang talked about his career as a journalist and the state of journalism in general.  

For the lecture, all of the seats in the Scheuer room were filled with members of Swarthmore College and other members of the Swarthmore borough community. The lecture began with an introduction by Tyrene White, professor of political science.

During Wang’s time at Swarthmore, he was a member of War News Radio and reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A year after graduating from Swarthmore, he began his work for NPR as a production assistant. He then began reporting for NPR in 2013, and in 2017 secured a position as a national correspondent.  Wang has received awards from the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, Native American Journalists Association, and most recently, an award from the American Statistical Association for “Excellence in Statistical Reporting” because of his work covering the Census Bureau and the Trump administration’s push for a citizenship question.

Following White’s introduction, Wang began his talk by explaining his choice for the title “The People, Power, and Money Behind the 2020 Census.”

“When you’re talking about the census in the United States of America, what you’re really talking about is power and you’re talking about money. How do we distribute political power in this country? How do we form a representative democracy? How do we distribute the [880 billion] in federal tax dollars that are collected every year? It’s based upon the census.”

He then expressed that despite the immense significance of the census. He also explained how most people living in America do not understand it.

“The Census Bureau has done market research and it’s found about two-thirds of people living in the country have some understanding or little to no understanding of the Census,” he said. “Two thirds of people living in this country [don’t understand] something so fundamental.”

One of the biggest changes being made to the 2020 Census is simply that it will now be offered online, as opposed to only on paper. Wang discussed the implications of this change and compared the American mentality surrounding the census to American mentality surrounding the upcoming presidential election. 

“For decades [the Census has] been taken by paper and in person, and it’s now going online.  All the big questions that we have going into the 2020 elections: the questions about whether foreign hackers are going to try and disrupt our election … whether internet trolling and misinformation is going to derail the election. Take out ‘the election’ and put in ‘the census’ which is going to happen before the general election,” Wang said. “We have a major governmental activity taking place that will have at least ten years of implications on elections in this country because not only do census numbers determine congressional seats, they also are used to draw voting districts at the state and local level.” 

Wang broke down the controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s proposed addition of a citizenship question. He pointed to the history of Census Bureau data being misused in the name of national security, and how that is tied to the mistrust that some people living in America have with providing information to the government. 

“With every proceeding decade… more and more people are saying that they’re not comfortable giving their information to the federal government,” Wang said. “There’s history that a lot of people point to [about] misuse of the Census Bureau data. During World War II, the War Powers Act was passed by Congress lifting up protections over Census Bureau data allowances. Data was used to locate US citizens of Japanese descent along the west coast in order to bring them to incarceration camps… There is a history Census data being used against people’s best interest for the name of National Security.  [This history] adds on to a lot of concerns about giving sensitive information about people’s identities or people status in this country.” 

Wang says the question will, after all, not be a part of the 2020 census. Three federal judges have blocked it from being included and the Supreme Court has upheld the rulings.

Finally, he detailed changes being made to the Census for 2020 other than the shift to an online form. One prominent change is the addition of a question about the sexual orientation of partners living together. The new household relationship categories will allow couples living together to identify their relationships as either “same-sex” or “opposite-sex.”

“For the first time, the census form will explicitly ask for a person’s sexual orientation,” he said. This will produce the most comprehensive national-level data we will have for the LGBTQ+ community in this country ever. It won’t be comprehensive, it does not include necessarily people who identify as nonbinary or people who are not in couplings, but this is the significance of the change.” 

The final major change Wang discussed was a difference in the race question on the 2020 census. 

There will be new write-in areas under the race question for the non-Hispanic origins of those who identify as white and/or Black. He shared how these changes will likely spark dialogue about the nuances of racial and ethnic identity.

“For the first time, if you answer white for the race question, that will not be enough. The Census Bureau is going to ask for your non-Hispanic origins,” Wang said. 

He also specified how the new write-in option will likely affect Black communities, drawing attention to the sensitivity of the question given America’s history of enslavement. He also commented on the potential for the change to provide critical information.

“If you mark Black, you will also be asked to write in your origins. This is a really sensitive question. A lot of people who are descendants of enslaved people, people who may want to answer that question and have tried to answer that question for themselves … because of the history of enslavement in this country, they don’t know where their ancestors originally came from beyond a continent or a region,” Wang said. “But I’ve also talked to newly-arrived African immigrants who are really excited to have the opportunity to show [more than] just their Black identity … and this could be data that these communities have wanted to have in order to better advocate for their needs.”

Afterwards, the lecture concluded with a Q&A.

Jaydeep Sangha ʼ21, co-president of War News Radio, attended the lecture and found it to be informative. Sangha commented on Wang’s idea of journalistic ethics, finding the way Wang sees his role as a journalist interesting. 

“One thing I noticed about him was the way he views his position as a journalist for National Public Radio. Someone asked a question, ‘Do you want your journalistic work to promote the 2020 census?’ and his answer was, ‘I am not here to promote or support the census I am here to educate the American people as best as possible and help them make the most informed decision if they want to participate in a census. I thought that was interesting,“ Sangha said. 

Nick Hirschel-Burns ʼ21, another co-president of WNR, attended both the dinner and lecture. He felt that Wang’s conversation during dinner helped him better understand the reality of being a journalist today.

“He talked about when he first got in at NPR, he just had to go wherever the stories were. So mass shootings, wildfires,” Hirschel-Burns said. ”They just call you in the middle of the night and tell you where to go. That sounds like both emotionally and physically draining and exhausting.”

Wang provided students, faculty, and staff of Swarthmore college and members from the broader Swarthmore community an overview of the power and history of the census and gave campus journalists a picture of the reality of pursuing journalism as a career. 

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