If You Don’t Get Counted then You Don’t Count: Why the 2020 Census Matters

This is the second edition of the new CiVEC column, “The City We Live In.” Each month CiVEC (Civic & Voter Engagement Coalition) will cover a local issue and let you know how you can get involved.

By: Bonnie Delaune

The 2020 U.S. Census is not just a bureaucratic counting exercise—if you care about advancing justice in the next decade, it could be the most important thing that happens all year. Entangled in the decennial, Constitutionally-mandated “actual enumeration”—a count of the country’s inhabitants— is an opportunity to obtain fair and accurate data to better serve the American people. The results of this count determine the distribution of federal resources and the apportionment of seats in legislative bodies.

Unfortunately, the upcoming Census next year is at risk of an undercount. Unsurprisingly, the likelihood of being accurately counted varies by factors like race, socioeconomic status, and level of education. Throughout history, our nation has marginalized communities on the basis of race and class through disinvestment and structural violence: this systemic undercounting will only exacerbate those existing inequalities.

Based on “hard-to-count” factors like immigration status and income level, New Yorkers are at significant risk of being undercounted, underserved and underrepresented. As future leaders and stewards of equitable and effective governance, SIPA students can play an important role in helping ensure a fair and accurate count in the city we call home.

What is at Stake?

Before past censuses, the federal government boosted funding, particularly in the few years prior to the count, to ensure the people, technology and processes are in place to conduct the count. This administration has not followed suit, and Congress has left the Census Bureau with unprecedentedly low levels of funding at this stage in the census cycle.

Census data collected in 2020 will be used for the next decade to determine what gets funded and who gets represented in Congress. Billions of dollars in federal funding for critical programs like Medicaid, Title 1 grants and SNAP are distributed to the states based on population data. An undercount jeopardizes these programs and may result in significant funding reductions, threatening low-income communities who rely on this public funding.

The counts are also used to redistrict Congressional, state and local district lines, which subsequently impact the Electoral College. In 2010, New York lost a seat in the House of Representatives—in 2020, New York could lose another seat, possibly two, if there is an undercount.

Who is at Risk of Being Undercounted?

New York City has significant numbers of hard-to-count populations, including immigrants, refugees, people with limited English, low-income people, communities of color, renters, parents of young children and homeless people. “Hard-to-count” populations are those in census tracts with a mail-return-rate of 73 percent or less in 2010. Across all five boroughs of New York, there were tracts with a response rate of less than 60 percent.

For the first time, the Census will be conducted primarily through online responses, which poses further risks of an undercount in New York. Nearly one-third of New York City lacks a home broadband subscription, and the same populations that are “hard-to-count” disproportionately lack internet access.

To complicate matters, the proposal of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census would further depress participation. Faced with an administration that has separated families at the border, banned immigration from Muslim-majority countries, and declared a national emergency in order to build a border wall, families are particularly fearful of identifying themselves to the federal government. In a country that has used Census data to target Japanese Americans for internment during World War II, these fears are not unfounded in a city home to 3.1 million immigrants and an estimated 560,000 undocumented immigrants. While a federal judge in New York has blocked Census officials from including the citizenship question, the Supreme Court will hear the case to determine the question’s constitutionality next month. Regardless of the outcome, the proposed citizenship question has already spread fear and mistrust of the government among marginalized communities.

What Can I Do to Ensure a Fair and Accurate Count?

SIPA’s Civic and Voter Engagement Coalition (CiVEC) is part of the New York Counts 2020 Coalition. Our aim is to ensure that New Yorkers—particularly marginalized communities in hard-to-count districts—can fully participate in the 2020 Census.

On March 5th we traveled to Albany to ask legislators for $40 million in the state budget to fund grassroots organizing efforts to “get out the count.” According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, community-based organizations are “uniquely positioned to assist and reach the hardest-to-count groups because of earned trust and cultural and language competence.”

Here are some actions you can take:

·         Join the conversation on social media to raise awareness and reach out to legislators.

·         Ask your district’s legislators to invest $40 million in Census community outreach.

·         SIPA students can join SIPA CiVEC on OrgSync to learn about efforts to support the New York Counts 2020 Coalition and Census organizing efforts.

CiVEC looks forward to partnering with you to ensure every New Yorker counts in 2020.