Leading U.S. businesses have been pushing back against the White House’s anti-immigrant policies since the weeks following Inauguration Day, and now they have joined the fight to keep a controversial new citizenship question out of the 2020 census.
The legal battle over the new census question has been in the media spotlight as a lawsuit—joined by major U.S. business organizations—inches closer to a Supreme Court hearing.
In the trenches, though, an equally important fight is shaping up. If the courts preserve the new citizenship question, major U.S. businesses are already in position to launch a holistic, boots-on-the-ground outreach campaign to encourage census participation.
The new census question asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” It further breaks down the question with different boxes to check for persons who are born in the U.S. or Puerto Rico and other territories, born abroad with at least one U.S. citizen parent, naturalized citizens, and lastly, “No, not a U.S. citizen.”
All things being equal, the question is a straightforward one. However, under the current administration, anything related to immigration is far from innocuous. Critics—and they are numerous—argue that the question appears deliberately designed to discourage counting in urban areas where immigrants congregate.
An inaccurate census may serve political purposes, but it is anathema to the U.S. business community.
Earlier this week, Reuters took a deep dive into the relationship between the business community and the Census Bureau and noted several significant reasons why U.S. businesses depend on accurate data:
“Retailers like Walmart and Target Corp use Census data to decide where to open stores or distribution hubs, and what to stock on shelves," wrote Reuters reporter Lauren Tara LaCapra. "Big banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co use the information similarly for branch strategy, and real-estate firms scrutinize the statistics to determine where to build homes and shopping centers. TV networks like Univision, meanwhile, rely on the numbers to plan programing in local markets. And the Census is an important input for tech giants like Google when they create myriad data-based products, such as maps.”
To cite just one example, Amazon’s multi-city search for a second headquarters also harvested Census data to aid the company’s decision making, LaCapra explained.
In this context, a new census question that could discourage millions of U.S. residents from participating—or participating accurately—is a bottom-line bombshell.
Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for businesses to step forward and take the lead, even if the new census question survives in court.
LaCapra of Reuters suggests that U.S. businesses have already amassed experience in encouraging census participation at a grassroots, face-to-face level: “Ahead of the 2010 Census, McDonald’s Corp featured information on restaurant placemats, Walmart greeters handed out flyers, big retailers featured reminders on receipts and utility companies stuck inserts into electric, gas and water bills.”
Intentionally or not, AB-InBev has already taken the lead on the 2020 census. The global company’s Budweiser brand touched off a media firestorm by unveiling a pro-immigrant advertisement at the 2017 Super Bowl.
That could be just a small harbinger of private-sector participation in the 2020 census.
The U.S. Census Bureau itself provides guidance for companies that want to get involved in the 2020 census. It is actively recruiting private-sector partners through its Integrated Partnership and Communications program, which is tasked with “building ties with more than 300,000 state, local, and tribal governments, community-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups, and the private sector.”
The IPC program appeals directly to the corporate social responsibility movement, explaining that “you benefit by fulfilling your CSR goals, accessing our personalized data training and information services, networking with other businesses you otherwise wouldn’t encounter, and engaging with your customers and employees around a civic duty.”
IPC is keenly aware of brand reputation, telling companies: “You have invested heavily in understanding how to reach and how to communicate with your customers and employees. You are trusted brands and trusted voices.”
Furthermore, IPC underscores the bottom-line benefits:
“The 2020 Census data will help you create projections of growth to identify prime locations to open new operations or close old ones. You can enhance your hiring practice and identify skilled workers. Our data provide valuable information on your customer base (income level, household size, homeownership status) to inform your pricing and location strategies.”
As IPC partners, companies receive messaging, branding and guidance on spreading the word. That includes basics like sharing a link to the 2020 census on company websites, providing Internet connections and free call time to underserved households, and hosting community educational events.
IPC also suggests that companies engage in commentary, through op-eds and similar content, to explain why partnering with the Census Bureau is so important to them.
In addition, the IPC guidance aims to build the 2020 census-taker workforce. IPC partners are asked to advertise Census job openings and help applicants with filling out forms. That can include providing transportation to libraries and other locations where help is available, or where training sessions are located.
That’s just for starters. IPC also encourages companies to sign up for Census Bureau news alerts, spread the word by following @uscensusbureau on Twitter, and distribute Census bureau infographics and other materials. The organization also hosts workshops to develop local solutions to specific challenges in their community and generate commitments to tackle them.
IPC also asks companies to use text messaging and social media to encourage Census employment and participation. In that regard, IPC has one particularly salient piece of guidance for its partners, and that is to “actively monitor, fact check, and correct misinformation on social networks about the 2020 Census.”
Reportedly, the Census Bureau has received “initial” commitments from Facebook, Google and Twitter to clamp down on misinformation.
It will be especially interesting to see how the commitment plays out for Facebook. The company has a years-long history of alleged civil rights violations to account for and overcome, in addition to an ongoing connection with white nationalism and tolerance of white nationalism through one of its controversial board members, along with its alleged facilitation of Russian propaganda during the 2016 election.
Companies that have come forward include Levi Strauss & Co, Uber, Lyft and Univision. Yet Reuters also reported that companies involved in the lawsuit against the new census question have been reluctant to publicize their stand, fearing backlash from the Trump administration.
Image credit: U.S. Census Bureau/Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.