Next year, the U.S. Census Bureau will send out a phalanx of workers across the country to knock on people’s doors. Census takers will ask residents questions to determine the number of individuals living in each household, whether it’s an apartment, house or mobile home. They will ask people’s race, their occupations and related questions.
This process, which takes place every 10 years, attempts to count every person who lives in the United States. The result will determine how the federal government divvies up about $690 billion that will pay for 132 programs. The census determines where federal taxpayer money goes, who gets it and the amounts states receive. The money filters to the states and on to local levels to our counties, towns and villages.
The importance of the census cannot be overstated.
But there are a number of obstacles on several levels that make it difficult for people to relate the census to their daily lives.
Sojourners magazine, a Christian social justice publication that focuses on faith, politics and culture, recently published a story by Adam Taylor, “Who is Most At Risk When the Census is Politicized.” Taylor put in very succinct terms the vital importance of everyone being counted: “.We should be alarmed and equally committed when one person is miscounted or disregarded in our society. Our democracy loses its integrity and legitimacy when people and communities are made invisible and further marginalized by undercounting in the census.”
The author makes clear that 2020 is of paramount importance because it is both an election year and a census year. Under the Constitution, the population count is used to determine the number seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and how many electoral votes each of the 50 states will have for the subsequent decade. Census population numbers also are used to draw the lines of congressional districts and are also used to draw state and local voting districts. Which is why politicians from both parties are jostling for ascendency and dirty tricks is, alas, the order of the day.
In addition to providing the basis for fair voting representation, Taylor said, census data plays a key role in the implementation and enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws and influences the allocation of the almost $700 billion in federal government resources that goes to states, localities and families every year, including federal funding for health care, education, housing, food and income security, rural access to broadband, and other vital services. The census also guides businesses and companies’ private-sector investment decisions on where to invest in job creation, new facilities and marketing.
It is worth repeating how critical the census is since it determines representation as well as the allocation of political power in the country. The census could be compared to a camera which captures a snapshot, a demographic rendering of our country. The count is the basis for determining how many representatives in the House and Senate will be able to be elected in each state, how congressional districts are drawn and who does them, all based on the number of residents counted and the number of members of the Electoral College.
All too often though, African Americans are undercounted, which translates into disparities in the numbers of schools, hospitals, service providers and the level of healthcare that’s available to Black women, men and children. Greater Washington Urban League (GWUL) is working extremely hard to ensure that communities are no longer vulnerable because they are traditionally under-resourced. Unfortunately, the undercounts that have occurred in past elections are intentional. These undercounts enable state and national lawmakers to dilute the power of Black and brown Americans and allows them to redraw districts to favor white constituents.
We say to African American and Latino communities to stand up and be counted, step out of the shadows and take control of this aspect of your lives.
About a year out from when the census gets into gear, there’s growing concern that African Americans will again be undercounted and ultimately underserved. Census and other experts note that historically, there is a disparity between the number of whites and racial and ethnic minorities. The census usually misses large numbers of racial and ethnic minorities and poor people.
However, the 2000 and 2010 censuses had a national undercount of less than two percent, because of what they characterized as the Census Bureau’s dedication, illustrated by staff walking into neighborhoods and knocking on the doors of the estimated 100 million U.S. residents who did not mail back their forms. The Census Bureau was able to do what it did because Congress gave it the money it needed to do the job.
GWUL’s goal is to ensure that every single person in Black neighborhoods across the country is counted. It won’t be easy because as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of barriers to success. For example, those living in areas dominated by people of color have traditionally been disenfranchised in terms of access to housing, good schools, an elevated quality of life.
In addition, those seeking to maximize the count will have to overcome barriers such as apathy, deep distrust of government, fear of deportation in blended immigrant households and, again, a misunderstanding of how the census affects their lives. Usually, certain groups of people fall into the difficult to count category. This includes college students living on campus, neighborhoods with significant clusters of immigrants, renters, residents who are less educated and who have low incomes and people living in nursing homes.
We realize that we have a lot of work to do in advance of the census. Our mantra during this census period is, “Be the Count That Matters.” We’ll be working closely with stakeholders, civic and social organizations, businesses and others to ensure that the census is an unqualified success.
We plan to partner with groups that work specifically with African Americans because we understand that we need to leverage the census so that our communities and neighborhoods can claim their tax dollars and that money essential to building and sustaining our neighborhoods isn’t diverted elsewhere. We have two steering committees of young advisors and seniors and we’re pulling together a number of joint events with members of both groups.
If there is an undercount, if African Americans are not counted properly, their respective communities could potentially miss out on billions of dollars, and if the numbers of our most vulnerable groups are underestimated, that could lead to the loss of money needed to fund specific programs — the social safety net — that could lift up individuals and improve their lives.
We want to ensure that everyone in the African American community is counted. That way we can ensure that the federal dollars — our tax dollars that are due to us — come to us so that we can strengthen, maintain and sustain our communities, build schools, hospitals, clinics and all the essentials that make life worth living.
Lambert is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.