It wouldn’t be 2020 if the census went according to plan.
The census may seem like a boring, bureaucratic topic, but its impact on our daily lives is huge and the results have the potential to reinforce or redress racial and economic disparities.
The number of changes and controversies that have dogged the 2020 census could make your head spin.
First, there was the battle over including a citizenship question, which the Trump administration lost last year but not before it stoked fear of the census for undocumented immigrants. (The citizenship question controversy resulted in the Census Bureau having to spend millions to reassure immigrants that their data would not be shared with authorities.)
Then, after years of preparation and strategy by community organizations to reach harder-to-count communities, the pandemic hit, throwing all those plans into chaos. In-person outreach events had to be scrapped and moved online, a risky shift, given the persistent digital divide.
Census door-knocking was supposed to start in May but was delayed to July and August, and then the deadline for collecting responses was moved from July to September, and then to October, then back to September, and it may get kicked back to October this week. On top of that, there are lawsuits flying on a number of issues, including the Trump administration’s effort to block, for the first time, the use of census counts of undocumented immigrants to apportion congressional seats.
Then, with the new new new deadline of Sept. 30 looming, community organizations planned a Sept. 16 statewide Day of Action to rally for a final push to count harder-to-count communities with pop-up outdoor outreach events and activities. As 2020 would have it, smokepocalypse forced many Seattle-area events to be rescheduled.
As Elsa Batres-Boni, the census strategic adviser for the city of Seattle put it, “Every step of the way, the census has been a challenge.”
At first glance, it looks like Washington is all set when it comes to a complete census count. As of last week, Washington ranked fourth of all states in census participation, with 98% reportedly counted. But Batres-Boni said that the devil is in the details and the 98% can be misleading.
Some people considered “counted” didn’t actually respond to the census themselves — they were tallied in talks with proxies such as neighbors or through federal records. And while 98% sounds good, no one really knows how many people represent 100%.
So who is not being counted?
“This is a fight against invisibility,” Batres-Boni said. The people who are being left out are “renters, students, people of color, immigrants and folks who are essential workers, people who are worrying about putting something [on their] table and not the census,” Batres-Boni said.
As an example, the self-response rate in Seattle’s Chinatown International District in early September was only 59%, compared with 89% in Seattle’s highest response tract, Loyal Heights.
One of the reasons Washington’s census has been as successful as it has is the work of community-based coalitions like the Washington Census Alliance, which brought together dozens of organizations led by or working with communities of color to ensure a complete count.
But Kamau Chege, the manager of the Washington Census Alliance, said that the numbers should not give us a sense of complacency.
The undercount of people of color in the constitutionally mandated count, Chege said, is part of the U.S. legacy of racial hierarchy. “When there’s an undercount, it’s not a surprise, because originally the census didn’t mean to count everybody in,” Chege said. “The census counted African Americans as three-fifths of people and it excluded ‘Indians, not taxed.’ It’s the only place in the Constitution that actually acknowledges the presence of slavery and alludes to the way that it was used to hoard resources and political power among certain communities and prevent it from being shared with everyone today,” he said.
The census creates the foundation for the next 10 years to determine how many schools we need, how many people need health care, and potentially where vaccines should be distributed, Batres-Boni said. In addition to deciding congressional representation, about $17 billion in federal funding is at stake for Washington. The people who suffer from an undercount are the people who need resources the most.
Chege said undercounting communities of color is an intentional strategy by the Trump administration “to ensure that some communities — the ones that are wealthier, and well off — get the representation and resources that they want and the ones that are more Black and brown, the ones that are more working class, don’t get the representation and resources that they need,” he said.
“That’s been the agenda all along, with gutting the Census Bureau, trying to put on a citizenship question, trying to shorten the amount of time that folks have in an unprecedented pandemic to respond to the census.”
In a year when everything that could go wrong has, we can’t let accurate representation and equitable resource distribution become another casualty. Be counted. It’s a small but powerful act of resistance against racism and inequity, in a country that still has a long way to go.