Every Person Counts: Why the Census Must Be Rescued

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Every Person Counts: Why the Census Must Be Rescued
By Gary D. Bass, Antonia Hernández, Barbara Picower, and Darren Walker. This post was originally published on July 31, 2018 by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Protecting democratic institutions and values is a crucial mission for philanthropy. That means expanding voting rights, making representation more inclusive, connecting impoverished communities with the resources they need, and so much more. But none of that happens without protecting a fundamental pillar of democracy: the census.

Every decade since 1790, the government has counted the American population, as required by the Constitution. While it took the 14th Amendment to ensure that all people were counted equally, the census has nonetheless performed an essential role in maintaining and improving our democracy. Today, our country uses census data to apportion congressional representation; to draw federal, state, and local legislative districts; and to enforce civil-rights laws.

The census helps cities and states identify locations for large infrastructure projects like schools, senior centers, public transit, hospitals, and police services. It determines how hundreds of billions of dollars are distributed every year to crucial programs like Medicaid and Head Start. Businesses use census data to decide where to open, offer jobs, and provide goods and services.

If the 2020 census yields inaccurate data, the people who depend on these programs and services — especially those in poverty and communities of color — will be in serious jeopardy.

Projects might be deprived of crucial funding and entire communities denied fair representation in government. In other words, the consequences of a poorly conducted census will ripple through government, business, and civil society for at least the next 10 years and set back the goals of many of America’s foundations and nonprofits for years to come.

All philanthropists have a stake in the census, no matter what they fund or where. It is incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to guarantee that it proceeds accurately, apolitically, ethically, and efficiently. And we are running out of time.

Question About Citizenship

The Census Bureau notes that certain populations have historically been undercounted, usually people of color, young children, and rural households.

Worse, Census Bureau research in 2017 revealed that the current political climate could further discourage census participation, a climate that has been fueled in part by the rhetoric and policies of the current administration. According to the bureau’s own Center for Survey Management, concerns about data sharing and privacy are growing, "particularly among immigrants or those who live with immigrants," and this could have a "disproportionate impact on hard-to-count populations."

Yet in March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross intensified the problem by adding a question about citizenship to the census, which he said at the time was at the request of the Department of Justice. He noted that this citizenship question was already being asked on the American Community Survey, which used to be called the census long form and is sent by the Census Bureau to a sample of about 3.5 million households each year.

This decision was made without testing the impact this question would have on response rates and accuracy of the data the Census Bureau collects through the 2020 survey.

Most experts, including six former directors of the bureau, agree that adding this question would likely cause a significant undercount among those who are already marginalized, including immigrants and people of color. Even the Census Bureau affirmed this in January, telling Ross that the addition of the question "harms the quality of the census count."

A new analysis shows that when people were asked this citizenship question on the 2016 American Community Survey, it went unanswered more than any other question that will also be on the 2020 census — a whopping 6 percent nonresponse rate. (To put that in perspective, 6 percent of the entire country is nearly 20 million people.)

What’s more, people of color who have participated in recent focus groups were alarmed about the citizenship question and believe that others like them will be less likely to fill out the census if the question is included.

At the same time, the 2020 census will also be the first conducted primarily online, promising uncharted territory and potential challenges.

For instance, given the threat of cyberattacks, are we certain that census data will be kept confidential and secure? How will the public be able to identify fake efforts to obtain their personal information? Are we prepared to deal with intentional campaigns to spread misinformation? Beyond security, there are just as many questions about access. Will online approaches be optimized for low-income individuals who rely on smartphones? And, of course, how will the Census Bureau leap across the digital divide to reach rural, low-income, and minority Americans? In all these cases, we’re not sure, largely because the technology is not being thoroughly tested. In fact, although the bureau planned three tests to practice this new online method, two were canceled.

Short on Money

Compounding our concerns about technology, the census has been suffering from a severe lack of funding. Typically, Congress steps up funding three years before the census, but in 2017 that increase didn’t occur.

As a result, the bureau is far behind in conducting opinion research and creating messages to remind Americans about the importance of completing the census or crafting campaigns that work for the millions of residents who don’t speak English as a first language. Even though Congress recently approved additional census spending, there are no guarantees this increase will be enough — or will continue.

The good news is that we still have time to intervene. Grant makers cannot replace the federal underfunding for the census, but we can use our resources and expertise to make the census fairer and more successful.

Right now, a coalition of foundations and advocates is working with civil-rights leaders, census experts, business leaders, faith-based groups, digital specialists, and many others to put in place a strategic response to these looming challenges. This group has proposed ditching the citizenship question and providing adequate funding for an accurate count and has offered concrete ways to advance secure digital collection of census information and launch a robust outreach effort to encourage the public to fill out the census, especially those who are hardest to count.

Already, this effort involving more than 65 grant makers has provided strategic funding to more than 70 organizations for census-related work, and we are seeing promising results. Media attention to the 2020 census is extremely high, and Census Bureau leaders have noted they have never seen groups involved in the decennial census this early and with this intensity. The Census Bureau’s 2018 budget has been significantly increased, a direct result of this foundation and nonprofit partnership to put the issue on Congress’s agenda. And when the citizenship question was announced, organizations funded by the consortium of grant makers were able to support legal challenges almost instantly. However, this is only the beginning. To continue this strategy and shore up the census over the next two years, donors still need to provide an additional $35 million for the national effort and more within states for local outreach for hard-to-count communities.

That’s why we need help. As philanthropists, we must use our voices, platforms, and networks to push for the removal of the citizenship question, identify trusted voices in communities likely to be undercounted who will promote filling out the census, and make sure the data is inclusive and accurate. We must be prepared to contribute our financial resources, influence, and expertise to the nonprofits and others working to ensure the census is carried out properly.

Ultimately, the census is not just about the survey. It’s about the future. If the census fails, communities will be starved of crucial resources, and we all will have to live with the consequences. All of us will suffer, but those with the least power — people in poverty, children of color, and new immigrants — will be especially hard hit. The next decade of data and decision making for our democracy is on the line. Every person in America counts, and it’s up to us to make sure they’re counted.

The authors are all the chief executives of their foundations. Gary D. Bass at the Bauman Foundation, Antonia Hernández at the California Community Foundation, Barbara Picower at JPB, and Darren Walker at Ford.

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