Every decade, we all have the opportunity to shape the future of our communities with one simple task: completing the census. I have been at the Census Bureau for more than 10 years and I am now the senior official responsible for a successful 2020 Census count. I can assure you that the census is safe, secure — and important.
The census is a once-a-decade effort to count all the people living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands). The census is a massive undertaking because more than 330 million people live in the United States. It is required by the U.S. Constitution to inform the apportionment — the number of seats that each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is also used to inform redistricting — the drawing of political districts within states — and helps our leaders decide where to spend billions of dollars in our communities, including on new roads, new educational programs to help our children thrive, new hospitals and many more vital resources. In addition, private companies use census statistics to decide whether to invest in neighborhoods, create new jobs and grow their businesses.
The Black Community and the Census
In 1904, social scientist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an analysis of Black farmers in the Southern United States for the Census Bureau. Du Bois' analysis used statistics to counter the racist narrative of the day and showed how Black farmers used their land and agricultural skills to make a better life for themselves and their families.
In 1970, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) worried about minorities being underrepresented in the census. She joined the Census Bureau as a census taker to help count parts of Brooklyn to show that the census could benefit communities simply by counting the people who lived in them. As the first Black woman elected to Congress, Chisholm understood that being counted was key to having a voice in our democracy and in helping determine where and how federal funding was spent.
Historically, Black people have been undercounted in the census. The Census Bureau estimates that, in 2010, it undercounted non-Hispanic Blacks by more than 800,000 people. Historically, young Black men, in particular, are likely to be undercounted. During the 2010 census, the net undercount of young men ages 18-29 was 1.2 percent for all races and 5.9 percent for young Black men. There was similar disparity in the undercount of children under age 5. In the 2010 census, the undercount rate for young children of all races was 4.6 percent or nearly 1 million children. For Black children, the undercount rate was 6.3 percent.
Why has the African-American community historically been undercounted or reluctant to respond?
As we prepare for the 2020 census, the Census Bureau’s research found some of the primary reasons for the undercount to be a general distrust of government, concern about the lack of confidentiality, fear of repercussions and concern that information from the census would be shared with other government agencies. We also noted a lack of understanding about how the census would benefit their communities.
So, it is important for our communities to know that responses to the census are confidential and protected by law. The same oath I took in 2009 is the same oath all employees take now. Everyone who works for the Census Bureau takes a lifetime oath to protect your confidentiality and can face imprisonment and fines if they don’t. Personal information will never be shared with other government agencies, including law enforcement and immigration.
Benefits of the Census
The perceived barriers Black people face in answering the census and past undercounts directly impact our communities — from underrepresentation in Congress and state legislatures to fewer federal and state dollars being spent in Black communities on schools, housing and food assistance programs, and local services like police and fire departments.
As an example, here are federal programs important to Black communities informed by census statistics:
1. Pell Grants for College Students. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education spent nearly $30 billion to subsidize college tuition for students in need nationwide. It is the fifth-largest federal program with funding informed by census statistics.
2. Aid for Land Grant and Historically Black Colleges. The Evans-Allen program supports agricultural research at land grant and historically Black colleges. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted $52 million to 18 colleges, including Tuskegee University, West Virginia State University and Central State University.
3. Medicaid. Medicaid is a federal-state insurance program that provides health coverage to low-income families and individuals, parents, seniors and people with disabilities. In 2012, there were 16 million African-American participants in Medicaid, which is the largest federal program for low-income people.
Responding is Simple
The 2020 census will be easier to respond to than any previous decennial census in our nation’s history because you have more response options. For the first time, you can respond online from your home computer, computers at a public library or school, or from your smartphone, tablet or other mobile device. If you do not have internet access, you can respond by calling one of our telephone questionnaire assistance centers, or you can complete a paper questionnaire and mail it in — just like we’ve always done. And if you don’t respond on your own, a census taker will visit your house to collect your responses in person.
For the 2020 census, we will have the most robust language-assistance program we have ever had for a census. Respondents will be able to respond in English and in 12 non-English languages (covering 99 percent of languages in all U.S households) — online or through bilingual teams in our telephone call centers. In addition, we will be providing guides in 59 languages other than English, including seven languages from the African diaspora —Amharic, Igbo, Somali, Swahili, Tigrinya, Twi and Yoruba. We will also have a guide in American Sign Language and print guides available in braille and large print. Our language program will account for 98 percent of limited-English-speaking households in the United States.
Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress,
understood that being counted was key to having a voice in our democracy and in
helping determine where and how federal funding was spent.
We need help from everyone to conduct the 2020 census.
We need you to encourage family members and friends to respond on their own so that they are counted where they live and their communities are not undercounted. And we need you to help us engage local organizations such as churches, mosques, synagogues and other partners from the faith-based community or partners focusing on historically hard-to-count populations such as young children.
Lastly, we need you to apply to help conduct the 2020 census in your neighborhood. Working for the census is one of the most fulfilling opportunities of my life. You, too, have the chance to apply today and be a part of history.
Counting everyone in the 2020 census is a monumental task. But if we work together, we can do it. The time is now to shape our future!
— Albert E. Fontenot Jr. is the associate director for decennial programs at the U.S. Census Bureau.