The 2020 Census: Be Counted

Natalie McNeal

The 2020 census will be one of the most challenging in recent times, but working with diverse communities, local influencers and new technology may help encourage accurate counting, experts say.

More than a headcount, census results determine how $675 billion in annual federal funding is allocated to local communities. If a community is under-counted — as often is the case in the Black community — the money will go to someone else because it’s a fixed pool, said Albert Fontenot, associate director for Decennial Census Programs in the Bureau of the Census.

In the 2015 budget year, 37 states lost a median of $1,091 for each uncounted person in the last census, according to an analysis by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

The census impacts funding for health centers, schools, roads, influences the Electoral College and helps determine whether an area gets a seat in the House of Representatives.

The private sector uses census numbers to decide where to locate businesses and plan communities.

“It’s about power, political power. It’s about money and it’s about knowledge,” Fontenot said.

Distrust of government and little hope that the government will help their communities are just two reasons listed by the Census Bureau on why African Americans don’t complete the census in higher numbers.

For instance, the 2020 census will be online for the first time, which has some worried that it will limit participation from rural communities and people who don’t have Internet access. Already, the NAACP has sued the Census Bureau, alleging that cutbacks, inadequate planning and insufficient testing of technology will lead to undercounting in nonwhite communities.

In addition, some people say that after the 2016 presidential race’s online disinformation campaigns, Black people — the target of many of those campaigns — may be less likely to fill out an online form.

The NAACP “will do the work as we file lawsuits and do whatever we need to do to make sure that this administration properly counts our community,” said Michael Curry, an NAACP board member.

Getting people to fill out the census form will require both new and time-honored outreach efforts. For instance, many historically Black neighborhoods have witnessed demographic shifts.

“You don’t just need to get out the count in the Black community,” said Sheila Isong, NAACP’s national political director for civic engagement. “We need our Asian/Pacific Island brothers and sisters; our Latino brothers and sisters. We need all different demographics to get out the count because everyone lives in our communities and we need the federal funding to be appropriated accordingly. We are trying to do things a little bit differently. We are trying to work with our allies and our partners to see what we can do together.”

In addition, there is a slight correlation between people targeted for "Get Out the Vote" campaigns and those less likely to fill out census forms, Isong said. The outreach for both can be done simultaneously.

The NAACP will launch an online toolkit to help community organizers with census outreach efforts. In addition, community influencers such as pastors, barbers, hair stylists and other local leaders should encourage people to fill out the form. Hustle, a peer-to-peer texting technology that can send out tens of thousands of messages and reminders, was also mentioned as an option to nudge people to fill out the census.

In the 2010 census, children under age 5 were undercounted by 1 million. Non-Hispanic Blacks were undercounted by 2.07 percent — more than 800,000 — compared to a .84 percent overcount for non-Hispanic Whites in the last census.

Young men age 18-29 were undercounted by 1.2 percent in the 2010 census. However, young White men were overcounted by 0.4 percent, while young Black men were undercounted by 5.9 percent.

Kori D. Jones, 28, said that he doesn’t think millennials are apathetic about the census, but simply may not be aware of its importance.

“[Growing up], I knew that the census counted people. It was a basic understanding," said Jones, who works in human services in local government in Maryland.

Jones said that he now plans to do outreach, especially to young Black men like himself — a demographic that is underrepresented on the census.

“My goal is to plant a seed,” Jones said.

Natalie P. McNeal is the author of "The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life."

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