Why does the census matter?
The decennial census plays a pivotal role in collecting and reporting data that is essential for the government, business, and nonprofits to function in supporting services for communities across Washington state. This data is used to make decisions that impact every community across the country for the next 10 years on issues including redistricting, the enforcement of civil rights laws, education, and infrastructure funding, among others.
This effort to count everyone living in the United States happens only once every 10 years. It is an immense task and there is only one chance to get it right.
The consequences of not having accurate data are not just data—it means real people’s lives that could be affected for an entire decade.
What is at stake in an undercounted Census?
Hundreds of federal financial assistance programs rely on data derived from the Census to guide the geographic distribution of funds to states, counties, cities, and households. In 2015, Washington received about $14 billion, about $2,000 per person, for the 16 largest Census-guided programs, which include:
- Highway Planning and Construction
- Special Education Grants
- School Lunch Programs
- Head Start/Early Head Start
- Health Center Programs
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance
- Foster Care, and Children’s Health Insurance Program
A main function of Census data is to reapportion states for both Congressional and Legislative seats so that new boundary lines for voting districts can be drawn. For example, based on 2010 Census data, Washington State’s population grew 14.1% from 200. With that growth, Washington earned a 10th seat in Congress. Voting districts are determined by the total number of people living in an area, not just the number of voters or citizens.
The boundary drawing process, called redistricting, determines the political representation of all communities. Making sure that all people in all communities are counted in the 2020 Census, could dramatically change the ways in which the districts are drawn. The redistricting process can keep communities together or split them apart. It can also change who wins an election – and ultimately which party controls Congress or the Legislature.
There is a high risk of losing crucial resources for Washington communities and service providers in a Census undercounted state.
Who is traditionally undercounted?
The Census has traditionally undercounted certain communities and areas. Called by the Census Bureau Hard to Count Communities (HTC) and Areas by the Census Bureau, these are defined as communities and areas where completed surveys were returned via mail at much lower rates compared to numbers of occupied housing units that received questionnaires. For the Census Bureau, this HTC term includes racial minorities, young children, lower income persons, people who do not speak English fluently, undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, LGBTQ individuals, people experiencing homelessness, and those with severe distrust of the government. These are the very communities that are in need of equal representation in our government. If they are not counted accurately in the Census, they are at risk of being further disenfranchised from our government and services.
Why the 2020 census is at risk of a population undercount?
Insufficient funding for Field Operations
The Census Bureau has been underfunded for the 2020 cycle, causing a delay in planning and staffing operations. Experts recommend that the 2020 Census operations require an additional $194 million to the $1.654 billion currently requested for fiscal year 2018. To compare, the 2010 Census cost $13 billion. This underfunding has already resulted in canceled tests including two in Washington State and scaled back operations that affects outreach strategies for Hard-to-Count-communities.
The Citizenship Question
For the first time in 70 years the Census is planning to include a question asking if you are a U.S. citizen or not. This question creates an enormous fear and distrust in for native-and foreign-born, citizen and non-citizen households – about the confidentiality of their personal information and how government authorities may use that information. As of now the question still remains in the Census questionnaire leaving a huge task for community leaders and allies to organize to remove it and to prepare for a challenging work ahead if the question becomes official.
The Digital Divide
To help close the funding gap, the Census Bureau has opted to use internet response options over traditional mail and canvasser outreach in 2020. Although this may be an initial cost-saving measure, it puts HTC communities and rural populations at risk of an undercount, including areas with limited to no access to broadband. Ensuring that historically marginalized communities are counted correctly in the 2020 Census is the first step to ensuring that they receive needed government resources and are represented in the redistricting process and policy debate moving forward.
The state of our federal government and its openly hostile policies towards people of color, immigrants, and low-income individuals causes well-founded distrust and trepidation about the Census.