I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: numbers matter. This is rarely as true as in the case of the decennial U.S. Census. So much of political and economic architecture of our nation depends on the census that it’s difficult to overstate its importance. It’s also easy to understand why the people who are most terrified at the changing demographic composition of the United States have gone to great lengths to make sure that this census is different from any in recent memory.
Let’s recap. For the first time since 1950, the Department of Commerce under Secretary Wilbur Ross said it would add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. In response to the addition of this question, 19 states, 10 cities, four counties and the US Conference of Mayors have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the citizenship question. In January, a federal judge ruled that the question could not be added. A second federal court ruled similarly this month, stating that the citizenship question will effectively depress “self-response rates among immigrants and noncitizens, and poses a significant risk of distorting the apportionment of congressional representation among the states.” The federal government has appealed these decisions and the Supreme Court of the United States is due to rule on the issue this year.
Whether the Supreme Court rules that the citizenship question can or cannot be added, getting an accurate count in states with large numbers of immigrants will be more difficult than usual. Coupled with the anti-immigrant policies unleashed by the Trump administration, the citizenship question on the census only makes it less likely that immigrant communities will trust the enumeration process.
All of this will have serious implications for states like California, Arizona, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. It is very likely that these states – and in particular the cities and districts that have large Latino and immigrant communities – will lose congressional seats and receive less federal dollars without concerted and vigorous outreach campaigns. No doubt, that is exactly what the White House is hoping for.
How do we fix this problem?
Funding! Community outreach and engagement funding! And lots of it!
State and local government, foundations and the private sector must step up and help fund massive outreach efforts that target immigrant communities and other hard to count populations. And these funds must go towards trusted institutions that have deep relationships with and knowledge of communities that are hardest to count. Community-based organizations (CBOs) in particular are key to these efforts. They are institutions of, by and for community, and have a long history of serving and championing those individuals most fearful and hesitant to participate in a census count. Through their dedicated, daily work over many years they have earned the trust of community. Moreover, they have loads of experience in operating various types of outreach programs.
At the Hispanic Federation, we have worked with our network of 110 Latino CBOs to develop Census Leadership Centers that educate individuals and families about the importance of the decennial count and help them fill out the Census questionnaire. With adequate support, they are able to train their staff to become census educators, do door-to-door canvasing, carry out community forums, launch digital and social media campaigns, work with ethnic and local media to produce public service announcements, and be a constant source of census engagement, education and support for entire neighborhoods.
But in order for them to do this critical work effectively, they need serious funding.
Take what California is doing to ensure a fair and accurate count of its population in the 2020 Census. The state government has set aside more than $90 million to support Census outreach at the community level. State senate and assembly-select committees have been formed to devise strategy. Philanthropy in the state has stepped up with the California Endowment pledging an additional $10 million for Census education and community engagement. Other funders are looking to support even more locally-based work. And there is strong recognition by all sectors that more has to be done to support local get-out-the-count efforts if California is to get a good count of its population in 2020.
We must all follow California’s example. The clock is ticking. We need government, philanthropic and business leaders in all states with large hard-to-count populations to come together to ensure we have a successful count. We have so much at stake! It’s time to invest in an effective strategy to make sure every state resident participates in the census. Washington may want us to disappear but we want to be counted.