Get It Right, Right Now

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Census 2020: Get it Right, Right Now

Philanthropy New York is very pleased to turn over the Policy Edition feature space to an important message from our members who are organizing around the 2020 Census. This is a topic PNY and Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York have agreed to work on together over the coming years.

By Patricia Swann, New York Community Trust; Maria Mottola, New York Foundation; Sol Marie Alfonso-Jones, Long Island Community Foundation – just three of the PNY members coming together to form the 2020 Census Funders Work Group

It is no coincidence that the communities that are hardest to reach in the decennial census count are also those that are under-resourced and under-represented in federal, state and local government. Systematic undercounting of hard-to-reach communities in the census is actually something that southern West Virginia and the Bronx have in common.  And it could get a whole lot worse after the 2020 Census if we don’t take action in the years leading up to the count.

The decennial census count doesn’t just determine voting representation (New York State will probably lose one congressional seat in redistricting after the 2020 Census, but could lose two seats if there isn’t a full and accurate count). The census also determines the geographic distribution of a huge amount of federal funds – from human services programs like Medicaid, SNAP, S-CHIP, WIC, and housing vouchers to large-scale capital investments like highway planning and construction.  For fiscal 2015, it was estimated that 300 federal programs were shaped by the census, determining the allocation of approximately $700 billion for that year alone. Corporations also rely on census data to inform their business strategies and need information that is as accurate as possible.

The staggering range of impacts on communities is one of the reasons why many businesses leaders are just as concerned about undercounts as philanthropic leaders are.  The Funders Committee for Civic Participation is engaged in an impressive multi-year project to ensure adequate public and private resources necessary for a full and accurate count nationwide, and has many documents making an extraordinarily strong case for widespread, multi-sector support for these efforts.

The good news is that private investments from business and philanthropy aimed at ensuring a full count have been proven to bring real results. Research from the 2010 NYC Funders Census Initiative, which focused on New York City, showed a 3 percent increase in the overall census participation rate, and a 5 percent increase in participation in the 53 neighborhoods it targeted. In addition, a Long Island Census Funders Initiative produced a 6-21 percent increase in participation in hard-to-count communities where it worked, and witnessed a similar sized decrease in participation in hard-to-count communities where it did not work. These relatively small differences in participation may not sound like a lot, but it translates to millions of dollars in funding allocations every year. 

While private support for supplemental planning and outreach efforts were productive and important in 2010, the challenges back then proved the importance of starting early. And the 2020 Census presents a whole new set of challenges, not least of which include increased suspicion and concerns about privacy in hard-to-reach populations (especially among immigrants), fewer federal resources being directed to outreach and testing in the lead-up to the census, and new, untested technologies being used in census.

At a time when even more resources should be dedicated to ensure a full and fair count given the additional challenges and experimental technologies being employed, the federal government seems poised to slash funding to the Census Bureau.  Even if the Census Bureau’s funding isn’t cut, there will still be a huge need for supplemental support, and foundations and businesses are helping by supporting:

  • Direct community outreach with the help of trusted CBOs
  • Large-scale communications campaigns
  • Research and evaluation

FCCP’s Funders Census Initiative 2020 is working at the national level to organize and stimulate interest in the census among funders and their grantees.  Here in New York, the 2020 Census Funders Work Group will work in coordination with and draw from FCCP’s resources to concentrate efforts across the state. New York’s 2020 Census Funders Work Group aims to:

  • Learn from the work of other areas of the country that are already ahead of us in preparing for 2020, and tap into their resources and those of national organizations.
  • Identify a list of needs associated with ensuring a full count in New York State that might include things like additional communications, translation services, workers on the ground, research and evaluation.
  • Identify the community-based organizations best positioned to take on the necessary additional work to ensure a full count
  • Help funders who care about a full and fair count share information about how they will be directing their resources to avoid gaps or unnecessary overlaps
  • Provide an opportunity to pool funds for those funders who would like to utilize such a mechanism. 

While we hope many funders will participate in a pooled fund, we strongly encourage any funder who cares about strong communities to get involved and learn with us, even if your organization isn’t likely to participate in the pooled fund.  The 2010 census funders group had a wide range of national and local funders, as well as an important mix of corporate funders and private, family and community foundations.

The 2020 Census Funders Work Group will have three phases of work:

  • Planning and identifying needs in the lead up to the 2020 Census
  • Working to monitor and support a full and accurate count as it happens
  • Follow through on the information generated by the 2020 Census to ensure it is used properly in community representation and funding allocations.

About a dozen PNY members have already come together for an informational meeting over the summer and an initial working group planning meeting that occurred last week.  There will be many opportunities in the coming year for funders to get involved, including another planning and learning session coming up on Monday, November 20 at 3:30 p.m. at Philanthropy New York.  We invite any funder – whether your work concentrates on health, education, community development, social justice, civic engagement, democracy-building or any other topic – to come and hear what’s going on. 

For funders who want a primer on why Census 2020 is so important and what is happening across the nation to ensure a full and fair count, we also encourage PNY members to consider FCCP’s next webinar “Key 2020 Census Milestones: Preparing to Invest in a Fair and Accurate Count” on Thursday, November 16 from 3:00-4:00 p.m. EST. 

If you think your organization’s grantees and the communities they serve will be affected by the outcome of the 2020 Census, we hope you will join us to learn and think about how to direct the limited resources we have.  If our communities are not counted, our communities will not count. While the process to ensure a full count is complex, the outcome is that simple.  Please join us. 

If you are interested in learning more about the 2020 Census Funders Work Group, please email