HISTORY AND IMPORTANCE OF THE US CENSUS
The census was written into Article I of the Constitution with the aim to base apportionment of Representatives and direct taxes off the number of people located within each state. The census is a massive practice in democracy, dedicated to ensuring that all people living in the country are counted and accurately represented. The results of the census have a direct impact on the boundaries for districts used for electing Representatives in Congress, state legislature, county/city council, school board, and more. The United Nations Association of the United States of America is supportive of this democratic exercise that aims to make the voices of everyone count.
CHALLENGES AND ADAPTATIONS FOR THE 2020 CENSUS
It is hard to imagine 2020 being associated with anything other than the Coronavirus pandemic for centuries to come. The virus has brought countless lasting issues to everyone around the globe. The US has been particularly hard hit, which of course has implications for the decennial census. In 2013, the Census Bureau began discussions of incorporating use of technology for gathering census data; the 2020 census is therefore the first to include the option to respond online. Surely this has been helpful in receiving responses, especially amidst the severe budget cuts to, and decreasing faith in, the US Postal Service.
I interviewed Brooklyn area Partnerships Coordinator for the Census Bureau, Zakera Ahmed, to discuss how the Bureau has been adjusting to this year’s challenges. One of the earliest barriers was the closing of the public library systems; libraries had been key partners in spreading the word and allowing community-members to fill out the census on public computers. School closures had also presented a problem – census information papers would go home with students, which was especially helpful in communities with low access to computers.
The Census Bureau adapted by attending virtual events whenever possible to remind and encourage people to complete the survey, including virtual classrooms and religious services. Since the city’s virus rates have been improving, census advocates have been successfully partnering with hospitals and food pantries; in a single day at a Brooklyn Hospital food distribution, 301 surveys were filled out on the spot.
In March 2018, the Trump Administration announced the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census – a question that had not been on the short form since 1950. Opponents to this decision worried the addition would suppress responses and lead to an imprecise count. Many states sued and in June 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the Administration’s rationale. The citizenship question is therefore not on the 2020 census.
Despite its omission, many still worry about the potential misuse of their personal data. As per 13 U.S.C. § 9, information collected through the census is confidential and only to be used for the dedicated reasons as laid out in the constitution. However, the country does have a notorious history of using citizenship data from the census maliciously. In the early 1940s, the Roosevelt Administration used the Second War Powers Act to repeal the legal protection, leading to the internment of Americans of specific backgrounds (Japanese, German, and Italian). People are understandably wary.
Ahmed says that public trust, especially in immigrant communities, remains a challenge. Community leaders have been particularly helpful in spreading the word of the census, acting as trusted voices. Faith-based leaders have been instrumental in this, as well as local and state elected officials.
It is crucial to continue trying to reach out to “Hard to Count” populations, which include immigrants, people of color, renters, and low-income people. Amhed says that with the impending deadline of September 30th, 2020, the Bureau is encouraging partners to create as many events as possible to allow people complete surveys on the spot – while maintaining social distancing and safety measures.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Zakera Ahmed says the best way to help is to spread the word. It is essential to get accurate information out there including that the census is easy and quick, and does not ask for SSN, bank information, or money. It is helpful to remind people that all information provided is safe and confidential under law; information cannot be shared with local, state, or federal government. Crucially, it also cannot be shared with landlords, which many people in unconventional housing situations may worry about.
If someone from the census comes to your door, you can identify them as an employee by their watermarked ID and census-provided device. Anyone you suspect is not a genuine census employee can be reported to the Census Bureau.
The census only occurs every ten years. This is our chance to make sure our voices are as influential as possible; this is a democratic responsibility.