Last summer, the Trump administration made a highly controversial attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a move rightly criticized as likely to depress the count of immigrants and their families. What didn’t make the headlines were a number of other under-the-radar decisions made by the administration despite having equal potential to keep noncitizens in our communities from being included — as well as many others from disadvantaged groups that have been historically undercounted.
If the census goes wrong, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people will have their votes diluted or lose out on critical federal funds.
This coming year, as at the start of every new decade, the government will undertake a simple but fundamental task enshrined in the Constitution: an accurate count of the national population. The census lays the foundation for much of what constitutes our democracy — determining the proper distribution of political representation, ensuring voting rights and providing a fair and adequate distribution of federal funding for our communities.
If the census goes wrong, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people will have their votes diluted or lose out on critical federal funds. When people are not counted, the government assumes the area needs fewer elected representatives and less resources for vital public services such as education and infrastructure. Unless something changes soon, the 2020 census could yield one of the largest undercounts of underrepresented communities in recent memory.
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The last census in 2010 missed some 1.5 million Black and Latinx residents — enough to fill two whole congressional districts. The U.S. Census Bureau has explained that the undercount was due to lack of participation from individuals who were hard to locate, persuade to participate, interview or contact. The data showed that these “hard-to-count” communities often consisted of the homeless, African Americans, Latinx Americans, immigrants, children, the disabled, teenagers and single parents.
This time around, the Census Bureau has all but guaranteed an even worse outcome by not providing the resources and outreach needed to make sure that everyone is counted, especially those disconnected from technology and lacking language skills.
Despite the need for enumerators — the people hired to go door-to-door to follow up with households that do not initially respond to census forms — the bureau has, for example, chosen to hire tens of thousands fewer enumerators than it did in 2010, a massive reduction that comes despite an overall increase in the U.S. population.
The bureau is also spending less money on outreach and community partnership programs. It has gutted the physical infrastructure it had in place last cycle, including all the nearly 30,000 questionnaire assistance centers it established in 2010 to help people fill out their census forms. Decisions like these will make it harder for the bureau to reach hard-to-count populations.
The Census Bureau claims it is making many of these changes as part of its shift to a digital census. But thanks to reduced funding, instead of conducting thorough tests to make sure the transition to the digital census will be successful, the bureau cut all but one of its scheduled tests, leaving the census vulnerable to software glitches and cyberattacks. And evidence suggests that the bureau’s planned “mobile assistance centers” will not be as successful as the questionnaire assistance centers they are meant to replace, especially because 65 percent of the people who used the physical centers in 2010 simply happened upon them. By prioritizing a digitally centered outreach with a thinly stretched ground strategy, the bureau risks marginalizing those who have limited digital literacy.
Undercounting our communities will have damaging effects far beyond the next decade. Undercounted areas will likely lose critical funding for education, health care, housing and transportation — entrenching a cycle of financial and political disempowerment for communities of color nationwide.
A failed 2020 census will hit communities in New York — where my organization, the Center for Popular Democracy, is headquartered — particularly hard. Some 80 percent of Brooklyn’s residents, for instance, live in neighborhoods the government has classified as hard to count. And in 2010, the city of Newburgh, New York, had one of the lowest census participation rates in New York state, with only 57 percent of residents responding to the initial census questionnaire. These are populations that need more funding and attention, not less.
That’s why the Center for Popular Democracy and the city of Newburgh are suing the Census Bureau for its deficient preparations for the census. Our suit alleges that the bureau has acted in blatant violation of legally required administrative procedures and the Constitution.
By prioritizing a digitally centered outreach with a thinly stretched ground strategy, the bureau risks marginalizing those who have limited digital literacy.
It’s not too late for the Census Bureau to change course. Congress has directed the bureau to ensure an accurate count, and to expend some of the more than $1 billion in funds that have already been appropriated to it rather than holding significant amounts in its piggybank while slashing outreach programs.
This is about more than one person filling out a form and being included in the census; it’s about entire communities standing up and declaring, amidst awful attacks from this administration, that we matter. That we count. That our voices and our perspectives deserve support, representation and recognition. The census can determine the power of our communities, and we won’t be excluded.