The 2020 Census, Stand Up and Be Counted

Jesse Jackson | 10/25/2019, 8:38 a.m.
A new report should raise alarms about the upcoming 2020 census. According to the Pew Research Center, the good news …
Jesse Jackson

A new report should raise alarms about the upcoming 2020 census. According to the Pew Research Center, the good news is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are aware of the census, and over eight in 10 say they are likely to participate. The bad news is that nearly one in four blacks, young people, and lower income people and one in five Hispanics are uncertain or reluctant to participate. If not changed, that could have truly negative impact on the most vulnerable.

The census is a big deal. The Constitution of the United States mandates a count of every American every 10 years. That count is used to allocate seats in the Congress, to inform redistricting of political boundaries and to guide the distribution of literally hundreds of billions of federal funds.

If Hispanics or Blacks are hesitant to participate, the undercount will impact how well represented they are, and how much federal money their neighborhoods get.

In these polarized times, the census is in danger of being turned into a political football. The Trump administration sought to place a question about citizenship on the census, clearly designed to intimidate immigrants from participating. That was blocked by the Supreme Court, but the controversy around it may well impact the willingness of immigrants generally, and Hispanics in particularly to participate.

The Census Bureau classifies low income people as "hard to count." The census is mailed to households in March. The homeless, however, have no mailbox. Low income people change addresses and jobs more often and are often forced into temporary housing with friends or relatives. Too often the people most in need of federal assistance are the very people who are not counted in the census that determines the allocation of funds.

The Trump administration has consistently sought to cut the budget for the Census Bureau. The 2020 census will be the first that is done largely online -- but many Americans, particularly older ones, aren't as familiar with online responses. They will need extra help, and Trump seems to be doing what he can to ensure that help is not there.

That increasingly leaves publicizing the census and providing assistance to complete the process to the states. Some states like California and New York take this seriously. Others -- like Texas and Florida -- do not. Southern states, mired in the habit of not wanting African Americans to count, often do little as well. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just 20 states have appropriated funds to coordinate, advertise and partner with local groups on the census.

Again, an undercount can have major effects. In Texas, which has no state committee, 40 percent of the population is Hispanic, many are no doubt terrified by the fervid debate over immigration. Texas could gain as many as three seats in the Congress -- if its population is counted. In fiscal year 2016, Texas received over $59 billion in federal funds derived from census data. An analysis by Andrew Reamber, professor at The George Washington University, estimates that an undercount of merely 1 percent would cost the state nearly $300 million in federal funds.

Citizen groups have scrambled to address the problem. The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus have created projects, partnering with local groups and national organizations to spread the word about the census and to set up volunteer efforts. A fight over funding for the census is likely to occur in the upcoming budget battle. If -- as seems increasingly likely -- there is no new budget, but merely an agreement to keep operating at current levels, the Census Bureau will face doing a census with inadequate funds.

It should not have to be this way. The census is in the Constitution because the Founders understood how important it was to know the size of the population. Everyone should agree that an accurate count is vital. Congress should step up to ensure the Census Bureau has adequate funding. The states should gear up so that their most vulnerable are counted and gain a fair share of federal support. Volunteer organizations should mobilize to help register those hardest to count. Time is short: the census is mailed to households in March. The time to act is now.

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