“Not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only “four hundred” people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen – the census taker....” -- O. Henry (1910)
Much has changed since the 1910 census when American author O. Henry penned those famous lines, but many misconceptions around the value of the U.S. census remain.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center before the most recent census in 2010, the majority of Americans saw the country’s federally mandated tally of its residents as a good thing. Sixty percent said they saw the process as “very important,” with 84 percent affirming that they knew the federal census took place every 10 years. Over half of respondents reported understanding that local communities benefit both directly (through federal financing) and indirectly (through congressional representation) when residents participate in the census process.
However, the survey data revealed that not everyone was aware of the greater purpose of the census or understood how the data is used.
One fifth of the respondents didn’t understand the value of the census when it came to ensuring their votes were counted, their roads fixed, and enough federal dollars were allocated to support medical services. More than one-third of survey respondents either thought the census helps the federal government locate and arrest illegal immigrants, or didn’t know that there are privacy laws in place controlling what census data can be used for.
“Census data is probably the most important data that no one has heard of,” said Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation working to ensure the 2020 census of U.S. residents is both comprehensive and accurate.
It’s important enough that more than 70 philanthropic organizations across the country have joined together to encourage residents to participate in the 2020 census. Funding for the initiative is being provided by a wide spectrum of organizations, including Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), the Pew Charitable Trust, and the Bauman Foundation, which see value in making sure that residents understand the importance of participating.
“Even if you don’t know you are using [census data], you are.” said Bass. “For many of us at the community level, it is the color of our democracy. If we get the data wrong [in the 2020 census], we distort democracy for the next decade.”
Bass pointed out that the statistics we read in newspaper articles, the research that influences what we buy, and even the data about the neighborhoods in which we choose to rent or buy a house, often has its roots in census data.
That’s because the census plays a uniquely crucial role in how the country operates. It provides grassroots data that allows federal, state, county and city governments to allocate funding, resources and federal representation. “The census guides the distribution of at least $700 billion in federal funds for programs. Everything from Medicaid to Head Start,” said Bass, “And it ensures there is enough money for school programs and new school construction.”
Communities including new immigrants, individuals experiencing homelessness, young children, disabled individuals, and other marginalized populations are often undercounted. Language barriers, suspicion of the government, and other barriers can hinder participation. Nowhere is this more true than in the state of California, where more than a quarter of the residents are immigrants and some 44 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home.
“California has the majority of hard-to-count communities in the country,” explained Dalma. “It’s an incredibly diverse state that’s hard to count, yet the state will not receive the funding it deserves if we don’t count our people accurately.”
“There has been insufficient, uncertain, and frequently late annual funding for planning and preparing for the 2020 census throughout this decade,” said Lowenthal, who noted that, “It does take a full ten years to research, test, design, and conduct a census, and then disseminate the data.” It also requires ample funding.
According to a report filed by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in May of this year, the cost of conducting the country’s decennial census has increased each decade. With the lifecycle costs of the 2010 census reaching an unprecedented $12.3 billion, in 2017 Congress decided not to increase the budget for the 2020 census and allocated the same amount as had been spent during the previous enumeration.
Since that time, another $3 billion has been added to the Bureau’s coffers. But the GAO has warned that it still has “serious concerns about the Bureau’s ability to conduct a cost-effective count of the nation,” which includes testing some questions in public scenarios prior to the actual census.
“Because of those funding shortfalls or delays, the Census Bureau has been forced throughout this census cycle to delay, cut back or even cancel important tests and preparations,” Lowenthal said. She also noted that, according to the U.S. census clock’s estimations, the country’s population will have grown by more than 20 million people since the 2010 census.
And that is part of why local organizations, national foundations, and advocates like SVCF, the Bauman Foundation, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Voto Latino, and others are marshaling efforts now to ensure communities take part in the process and adequately educate their residents about how the census works.
Lowenthal pointed out that unlike many government tasks, the census cannot be delayed and must take place every ten years according to the Constitution. With a lack of timely, sufficient resources at the federal level, local communities must assist with education and outreach efforts to ensure their residents are counted.
“We believe the Census Bureau is really, really unprepared to prevent shortcomings,” said Dalma, citing reduced efforts to pretest questions in hard-to-count communities in rural settings in locations including Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Washington State, and First Nations reservations in the Dakotas, combined with an ongoing effort by the Trump administration to question citizenship status.
According to Amendment 14, Section 2 of the Constitution, state populations are to be counted “according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state.” Many experts who have weighed in over the years to note that the one thing the census does not ask for is a resident’s citizenship. Doing so could discourage immigrants -- both documented and undocumented -- to participate in the census and make it harder to determine the actual population living in the state. And that discrepancy could make it harder to ensure states get fair representation.
But in March of this year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross added a question requiring participants to answer whether they are citizens of the United States or not. According to Bass, the commerce secretary was warned by the Census Bureau that in its estimation, adding such a question could work against the efficacy of the census and according to a memo written to Ross, “harms the quality of the census count.”
Lowenthal said the Supreme Court as recently as two years ago confirmed that the Constitution requires "a census that counts everyone living in the United States regardless of their citizenship or legal status."
“[The founding fathers] envisioned a democracy where elected officials represent everyone, regardless of whether they can vote. We have to remember children don’t vote, for example,” Lowenthal said, "but they do deserve representation."
She said companies can play a crucial part in a number of ways, including by becoming funders for on-the-ground education and publicity campaigns. They can also educate their workers and consumers about the important role that census data plays in building resilient communities.
The 2020 census will be the country’s first-ever digital census, offering an opportunity for residents to respond online as well as by mail. To capture the data from as many communities as possible, the online survey will be available in 12 languages including English. It will also be accessible in Braille, and language assistance guides will be on standby to help people who speak 59 other languages. This will also be the first year that participants will be able complete the census by phone.
Dalma said there’s a special need for tech companies and those that have specific talents in today’s digital marketplace, since they are often the biggest users of census data.
“We have heard of a small nonprofit organization that is using Snapchat to get the word out. We don’t have the expertise.” said Dalma, matter-of-factly. “Companies do.”
And often it’s the small measures that make the biggest impacts. Lowenthal said last census a Long Island power company printed reminders on their bills to spur customers to fill out census forms. Other companies printed similar messages on pay stubs and banners to remind residents that it was important to participate.
“There are many ways businesses big and small, publicly traded and privately traded can play a part in this really unique national event,” said Lowenthal. “A successful census is in businesses’ best interest.”
Image Credit: Adobe Stock
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.