ACTION GROUP FOCUS: Save the Census – If You’re Not Counted, You Won’t Count

The call-to-action links are:
Do you like shopping at Target? Do you live in housing funded by tax credits? Do you enjoy a glass of wine at the local watering-hole? Do you like to vote? You might be surprised to know that the Census is behind your ability to do all of those things (and so much more!).

The Census is America’s once-every-10-year examination of who we are. It tracks all kinds of things — how old you are, how old your house is, how long it takes you to drive to Target, whether there are enough people in your town to allow a new liquor license, and how your Congressional and legislative districts are drawn, to name just a few. Hundreds of federal and state programs and billions of dollars in federal funds that come to states and municipalities rely on Census population and housing data, and businesses use Census population, income and drive-time data extensively to figure out whether a Target, or a Starbucks, will do well in a certain location. It’s hard to imagine going through even a day without an interaction that depends in some way on the Census.

The next Census will take place in 2020. As with every Census, the goal is an accurate and complete count of who is in this country. And because so many things depend on the resulting data, it’s critical that we get it right — if we don’t, we’ll be living with the consequences for another 10 years. So below are some FAQs about the Census, including some disturbing indicators that it might be in trouble, along with some calls to action that we can take in order to do our part to ensure a fair, accurate and complete count. Because if you’re not counted, you won’t count.

Why do we have to do a Census? It’s required by the Constitution, one of the many visionary things the Founding Fathers put in there to help ensure a strong democracy.

Does it count only citizens? NO. It counts us all equally. Regardless of who you are, if you are in this country for any reason other than temporary (business or vacation) travel, you should be counted.

What does it cost to conduct a Census? To fund the 2020 Census fully will take an estimated $15.6 billion, allocated across several years in order to fund preparations as well as enumeration and data analysis. The 2019 portion in the president’s budget allocated significantly less than what is required, but there are signs that Congress will increase appropriations for the Census, which is good news.

Who oversees the Census? It comes under the purview of the Commerce Department, and is overseen in Congress by the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman sits on the House committee, and on the sub-committee directly responsible for the Census.

What’s new about the 2020 Census? This will be the first attempt to collect responses online, as opposed to using mail-in forms. This will require massive new information technology infrastructure, both consumer-facing — think kiosks in post offices — and on the back end to handle all the data securely.

So, what are the problems?
  1. No one at the top. The director of the Census is a Senate-confirmable position. The last director left in June 2018, and there is no nomination at the moment for a new director. There is an acting director, Ron Jarmin, but he has not been nominated to fill the position permanently. (There were rumors for a while that Thomas Brunell, a university professor with no large-government experience and who has no problem with gerrymandered election districts, was going to be named deputy director, a position that does not require confirmation, but he withdrew his name from consideration.)
  2. IT systems are behind. Development of the new systems required to do an online enumeration are behind schedule, which will lead to insufficient time for testing.
  3. Only one field test. Two years before the actual Census, the bureau does a series of field tests so it can identify and fix bugs in the system before going live. Because original budget appropriations were insufficient, two of the three field tests were canceled. The remaining field test, in Providence County, R.I., is under way at the moment, but there will be no re-test after any identified bugs are fixed. In addition, if the citizenship question (see below) is ultimately included in the Census, response rates from the Providence test will not be accurate, since the test does not include that question.
  4. The citizenship question. Proposed questions for the Census had to be submitted by March 31, 2018. The Justice Department requested the inclusion of a question on citizenship, which has been accepted. The Providence field test began on April 1, 2018, which means it did not include the citizenship question. There is a multi-state lawsuit, to which New Jersey is a party, challenging inclusion of the citizenship question, so it is not clear whether it will be included in the actual Census. Including it is likely to reduce response rates from people in the country without legal documentation. Since these groups are largest in urban (and more Democratic) areas, this under-response could result in undercounts in these areas, which in turn would mean unfair election districts and reduced funding levels for a variety of federal programs targeted to exactly these groups.
  5. Insufficient funds and effort for outreach. For every Census, the Census Bureau partners with hundreds of local community organizations throughout the country to help reach as many people as possible, and there is a significant advertising and outreach budget that gets passed through to states and to these groups. Marginalized communities are, in the current political climate, understandably wary of sharing any information with the federal government, so it will be particularly difficult to secure their cooperation in completing the Census questionnaire without consistent outreach by trusted partners. There is a growing fear that, if the Census is underfunded in any way, advertising and outreach is where the most drastic cuts will take place.
Taken as a whole, it’s reasonable to interpret this list of problems as a concerted effort to suppress the enumeration, and hence the opportunity and power, of groups of people to which this administration has been consistently hostile. (The House Oversight Committee has largely been trying ensure that the Census functions property, so the problem is within the Commerce Department.)

What can we do? One of the things we learned in our Save the Census study group is that it might be a little too early to get involved at the state level. However, at the right time — probably starting around September 2019 — there will be several things we can do:
  • Join the Save the Census action group on our Slack channel, which is where we post articles and other information to stay informed on Census progress. (Actually, you can do this now! Just email the group’s leader, Elaine Clisham.)
  • For Twitter users, here is a handy list of Census-related accounts to follow.
  • Make sure the Murphy administration establishes a Complete Count Committee, which will act as the coordinating body within the state to make sure as many of us are counted as possible. The Murphy administration is new and probably still getting its Census legs under it, so for now we should watch and be ready to get involved as soon as some infrastructure is in place.
  • Volunteer as an organization to go to local groups — houses of worship, community organizations, business organizations, etc. — and speak on the importance of the Census, and on things those groups can do to help ensure a complete count.
  • Write letters and op-eds for local publications on the importance of a complete count.
  • Make sure candidates for office have the Census as a priority.

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