Imagine a huge national party that occurs only once every 10 years, where the party favors amount to trillions of dollars. They’re distributed according only to the needs of the partygoers. But in this case, the party is the census, your attendance is completing the Census online, by phone, or by mail, and the party favor is the ability to access federal programs that meet your needs.
From March 12-20, the U.S. Census Bureau mailed an invitation to every household across the entire U.S.—all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the five territories, including Puerto Rico—asking all of us to participate in the 2020 Census.
So far only half of all people in the U.S. have filled it out. In some states, participation drops as low as 25 percent.
But field operations were suspended from mid-March to mid-April, leading to this low turnout we see now. So what next? On April 8, the U.S. Census Bureau began using another tool to recruit households to participate: paper questionnaires, though you can continue to take advantage of online and phone methods.
“Whoever you are, citizen, resident, non-citizen, homeless, you are asked to participate,” said Liz OuYang, a lawyer and activist working with communities in Puerto Rico and large metropolitan areas across the country. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau’s website reminds those who are considering skipping the 10 minute survey that the participation of everyone living in the U.S. is required by law.
Census results have a tremendous national and local impact. The count’s initial Constitutional purpose is to determine how to apportion the 435 seats for the United States House of Representatives. California already stands to lose one congressional seat, which means we will have one less person pressing issues impacting our state. During unstable times like these, that means one less advocate in the House during a crisis.
This data impacts the federal and state, but its effect on public funding places large impacts at the local level. The census informs expensive federal and state programs but also local programming that residents could risk losing if they do not participate.
After the census collects and disseminates its data, an independent redistricting commission of qualified voters throughout the state is created. This commission will begin meeting at the very start of next year and will use census data data to redraw the maps of districts for congressional seats, as well as state senate, state assembly, and the Board of Equalization, which administers state and local taxes, impacting even more drastically the public funds a locality might be able to receive. This can then impact even more local decision making regarding which counties might receive more childcare program funding or which neighborhoods might be incorporated into particular school districts.
Federal and local issues become closely intertwined through the census, as its results influence how the government chooses to distribute mass amounts of financial resources. According to the Tax Policy Center, researchers and policymakers use census data to distribute more than $900 billion annually in federal assistance to states, local governments, and families. That is roughly 9 trillion across the next 10 years. These funds impact not only national but community-level decision-making for issues ranging from healthcare, housing, school programs, business investments, and more, making it imperative that we achieve a fair and accurate census.
In 2020, the count of Black and brown folks is not a number up for negotiation. Latinos are the most historically undercounted Census group. In 1990, “Persons of Hispanic origin” hit an estimated 5-6 percent undercount. In 2010, Latino undercount was 1.5 percent according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This might seem like a huge improvement. But the Latino population is the fastest-growing in the United States; and coupled with the roughly 0.8 percent overcount of white non-Hispanics, we can estimate that at least $19 billion in federal funding was misallocated away from Latino families every year for the last 10 years. The Urban Institute predicts an undercount of up to 2.2 million Latino adults, just under the total size of Chicago, and 1.6 million Latino children could occur in the 2020 Census.
Latino children are particularly at risk for being undercounted, and accounted for more than 36 percent of the 2010 total net undercount of all children under age 5. In California alone, the estimates predict roughtly 113,000 young Latinos weren’t counted in the 2010 census. With some of our most essential programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and pell grants, making it to the top 10 list of federal programs informed by Census data, we must ensure all children are counted.
Some of the barriers that prevent Latinos from participating in the census include perceived language barriers, status as renters, and concern regarding citizenship status. Census guides are currently offered in 59 languages including Spanish, Portugese, and Navajo. The census forms themselves, as well as hotlines, are offered in Spanish.
Status as renters should not deter anyone from participating. Census employees cannot divulge individual personal identifying information about the person completing the census to anyone, even ICE, FBI, or even landlords. If employees are found violating this rule, it can result in a $2,500 fine and up to five years imprisonment for the census taker.
Lastly, the 2020 Census does not ask about citizenship status. If you share any information regarding citizenship status, the “U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to protect your answers and keep them strictly confidential. The law ensures that your private information is never published and that your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court.”
In describing these protections we have while participating in the census, OuYang also explained that the President intentionally tried to benefit from this fear of the census:
“The President’s administration aimed this question at the Latino community,” OuYang said. “It wanted to have the question to scare primarily Latinos from completing the census so that the administration could draw congressional districts that were favorable to republicans.” So now efforts must be made to educate one another. Avoiding the census only serves to benefit the people holding power.
But the only thing to fear is what will happen if we do not participate.
“If people don’t complete it, they’re invisible,” OuYang said.
Donna Hilliard, Director of Operations for Code Tenderloin, echoed a similar sentiment.
“Basically for our community the majority of the population is homeless. A lot of them are living in tents or cars,” Hilliard said. “We get a lot of people who think that it doesn’t matter if they fill it [the census] out. But the fact is that if these people are not counted, they won’t get the resources they deserve.”
The Tenderloin currently claims the fastest-growing Latino population in the city, houses some of the highest numbers of homeless individuals, and includes a large transgender community. So in reality, areas like the Tenderloin, the Bayview, and the Mission are most at risk of being undercounted and also stand to lose the most with cuts to programs like Section 8 housing.
Local organizations like Code Tenderloin are determined to make this Census the most accurate count for San Francisco to date. Hilliard explained some of her organization’s efforts in the Compton’s Transgender district, an area of the Tenderloin where many transgender and gender-nonforming individuals live.
“We have made special outreach efforts to make it a little more fun with music, so that it’s more of an inviting, party environment where the people who are traditionally not counted can make themselves known,” Hilliard said. “We also try to offer some in person guidance and information on technology so that they can feel comfortable filling out the Census forms online.”
And while many of these organizations have had to shifts their efforts to abide by CDC social distancing guidelines, word of mouth encouragement to participate in the census will be more critical than ever. Just as our local community organizations have stepped up to the plate by pivoting their outreach efforts to be online or on the phone, so too can we be creative and willing in the ways we encourage others to participate.
Have you filled out the 2020 Census?