Why You Should Participate in the 2020 Census

Ari Meier

When minorities opt out, this ultimately hurts their communities

It’s a new year, new decade, and time for another census. This every ten-year or decennial affair is essential, as it’s not just about counting every person in the country for the sake of knowing that another 150,000 people moved to Atlanta in the last decade. Knowing the numbers are important for two reasons only: how 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be divided between the 50 states, and by extension electoral college votes, based on state population, this is called Apportionment. It’ll also decide how much federal funds, grants, and support that states, counties, and cities will get out of $675 billion every year.

In creating the U.S. Constitution, the population was chosen as the foundation of how political power would be shared, not land or wealth.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…” – The Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 2.

So, How Does the Census Work?

The goal of the Census is to count the population of the country. The census form asks about the number of people living in each home, their sex, age, and race. Simple as that. The Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the census form, and many groups felt this was political. With much at stake, apportionment, and federal funds, having a citizenship question added to the census form would most likely intimidate immigrants (legal and illegal) from not participating in the count. Indeed, a 2015 study conducted by a Republican redistricting expert found that only using voting-age citizens for redistricting would benefit white Republicans.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Does Participating in the Census Benefit my Community?

Non-participation in the Census could disproportionately affect economically and politically fragile communities. For example, you receive your census form in the mail in March. You’ve heard about the Census but have only filled out a Census form a ‘couple of times’ in the past, and you don’t know anyone in your community that has ever participated. Say you are living in a city where some of the roads need repair, the schools are underfunded, and the hospital in your area has seen better days.

After the census count wraps up in July 2020, the official numbers will come out soon afterward. The census numbers show that your community lost more than 5,000 residents in the last decade. This doesn’t make sense to you as traffic has gotten worse, schools are overcrowded, and you avoid going to the grocery store until 9 pm. This all flies in the face of what you see in real life. What’s happened is many people did not fill out the census forms. Your community will get even fewer federal dollars for the things that need improvement. When you complete the census form, you are being counted as a part of your community and helping your community get its fair piece of the federal funds pie.

Businesses use census data in deciding where to open offices, stores, and distribution centers. Local governments use the data to better plan for public safety and emergency preparation. Developers want to maximize their potential return on investment by knowing which area would be the best to build housing and mixed-use developments. The census data is used for this purpose. To illustrate how important the census count is, after the release of the 2010 Census data, more than 200 cities sued the bureau, demanding a recount.

What’s Apportionment, and Why it’s Important?

The Census has even bigger political considerations with Apportionment. The original legal purpose of the Census is all about Apportionment. There are only a total of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and communities might find their representation will change if population counts show significant changes.
Say an area was mostly Democrat-leaning in 2010. If many Democrat-leaning residents forego filling out the census form for 2020, they could find their area has been reapportioned to a community next to theirs, where they lean more republican. This may result in causes important to you not being deemed as important by the representative that might be elected out of the community.

Minorities are Historically Undercounted

Also, according to a report by the Urban Institute, it’s estimated that nearly 4 million mostly minority U.S. residents won’t be counted, while other groups might be overcounted. The study found this is due to the bureau streamlining its operations, such as increasing online-only participation and using third-party and administrative data to complete information for missing residents. This is in response to the estimated cost going up 25% more than its original estimate to $15.6 billion, three times what it cost to do the 2000 count. The states are allocating money to attempt to reach every resident.

The Urban Institute researchers’ highest level of miscounting risk show that individuals who identify as black, could be undercounted nationally by 3.68%, or 1,727,200 and Hispanic/Latinx residents could be undercounted nationally by 3.57% or 2,216,200. White, non-Hispanic residents could be overcounted by 0.03%.

Over the last ten years, the Census has seen budget cuts, especially in the previous three years. This results in the bureau not being able to do as many test-runs. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), added the 2020 Census to its high-risk list because of the bureau not doing as many tests and not being adequately prepared for possible issues in the counting process. Although bureau officials have addressed some of these concerns, the bureau remains on the high-risk list; the GAO wrote, “Not fully testing innovations and IT systems as designed, increases the risk that innovations and IT systems will not function as intended during the 2020 Census.”
Much of this doesn’t matter as it’s about the bureau not having as much funding to reach everyone. You are now aware that economically and politically, the next decade in the U.S., your state, city, town, and village can be informed by you choosing to fill out the 2020 Census form and sending it in.

The U.S. Census Bureau: Why We Conduct the Decennial Census
Columbia Law Review: Counting Change: Ensuring an Inclusive Census for Communities of Color
Newsweek: 2020 Census Could Undercount Millions of Minority Americans: Report

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