The 2020 decennial Census will gather the most complete picture of America since 2010. The U.S. Constitution requires states to use census data for drawing political districts. Every 10 years, all U.S. states redraw their legislative and congressional districts in order to comply with the constitutional mandate that districts be equally populated. States redraw these districts using block-level data from the decennial census conducted in years ending in zero. A fair and accurate census is central to democratic society, as it affects federal funding allocations, redistricting, state and local budgets, and data-driven business and research decisions.
The 2010 Census, by comparison, was arguably one of the more accurate decennial censuses conducted in recent history. However, the accuracy of the overall population count came at the expense of miscounting certain groups of people. Non-Hispanic white people were over-counted by almost 1% nationally, while black people were undercounted by about 2%, Hispanic people were undercounted by 1.5%, and other groups were undercounted even more. A US Census Bureau demographic analysis entitled, “The Undercount of Young Children”, assessed the accuracy of the 2010 Census and also revealed an endemic problem that has plagued the decennial census for decades: 5% of children younger than 5 were missed in the 2010 count. In fact, the Urban Institute estimates that as many as 94,000 Virginia residents may be undercounted in 2020. This includes a higher undercount risk for young children in densely populated urban localities within our Foodbank’s service area.
The consequences of an unfair census are immense. Inaccuracies in census subpopulation counts may alter our view of the demographic makeup of our nation, our state, and our local community, meaning, we are not who we think we are. When the lens we use to view ourselves becomes distorted, this can affect important policy decisions and inhibit community development.
When neighborhoods of color or those with immigrants are undercounted while white neighborhoods are over-counted, community needs assessments and subsequent funding could be adversely affected. These neighborhoods would not receive their fair share of federal funding or other resources, and other neighborhoods would receive more than they deserve, further exacerbating the challenges of already-struggling communities.
Moreover, businesses, nonprofit organizations and state and local governments alike have huge stakes in the census. It sets the benchmark for the next decade’s allocation of federal grants and subsidies, for marketing and planning studies that shape cities and, of course, for political representation. Inaccurate census data may lead these entities to reach inappropriate conclusions in their planning of business and service locations (e.g., grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and fire stations) or infrastructure investments (e.g., road improvements, public transportation, and broadband access). The census is also used to allocate federal funding for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Getting an accurate count will help determine how much money to distribute into communities. Further inaccuracies could preserve or even advance existing structural disparities rather than mitigate them.
Compounding those issues, the census is still tackling some of the challenges it has always faced in reaching immigrant and minority communities, including language barriers, cultural barriers and messaging. The late introduction of a citizenship question (in spite of clear evidence of the adverse impact on participation by households with noncitizens), threatens the fairness of the 2020 Census.
Adding to the current challenges, preparations for the 2020 Census have been undermined by COVID-19. The Census Bureau plans to ask Congress for a four-month delay in delivering the Census data used to reapportion the House of Representatives and political districts nationwide. That would mean that state legislatures would get final population figures for drawing new maps as late as July 2021. Delivery of that data is normally completed by the end of March, and under normal circumstances, states would complete the process of redrawing district maps by the end of summer in 2021.
Experts on the census, who represent many groups seeking an accurate count, agree that there is only so much the bureau can do on its own to maintain the integrity of the process amid a national crisis like the one we are experiencing with COVID-19. Congress has the authority and obligation to work with the bureau in taking a close look at all steps required to ensure an accurate count of all residents in the United States. But we have a civic duty to make the 2020 Census the most accurate it can be. That means participating yourself (including everyone in your household) and encouraging friends, family, neighbors, and community members to participate. We are all equally worthy of being counted, and our communities deserve to receive their fair shares of resources and representation.
It’s not to late. Participate in the 2020 Census here.