The deadline for the 2020 Census is now less than one month away (Sept. 30), after the U.S. Census Bureau said it would be ending all counting efforts a month earlier than previously announced. It is inevitable that there will be an undercount in the 2020 Census. The big question is by how much. Hard-to-count groups—including complex households, renters, young children, immigrants, and people of color—will represent a larger share of the population in 2020 than they did in 2010, the year of the last census. Urban Institute projections show that even under the lowest-risk scenario—an assumption that the 2020 Census will perform exactly as the 2010 Census did—the national population count will be less accurate.

Census data is used to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funds each year. An undercount in the Census can severely impact government funding for education, health care, affordable housing, employment, and infrastructure in communities that are already under-resourced and marginalized. Securing an accurate count of the total population of the nation is a constitutional mandate. To fulfill this mandate, a fair and accurate census count is necessary. 

"All people are created equal, and no person deserves to be counted in a census more than any other, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed. As such, fairness is a value inseparably tied to conducting a census in the United States. We must each be counted and represented equally." 

Because so much is at stake with this census, arguably more important now than in 2010, at least seven lawsuits are challenging the Trump Administration and Census Bureau for their handling of the mandate, particularly the rush to end the count this month.

Is Fairness and Representation Possible?
It’s not just new, and largely untested, operational changes that are likely impacting an undercount. (In fact, they will disproportionately improve the count of those who are already easiest to count). More tellingly, political discourse over the last few years about immigration and worsening conditions for people of color and those with low incomes means there is real fear and confusion in communities across the country about participating in the census. For example, even though the Trump Administration’s citizenship question is not on the census questionnaire, the distrust resulting from its mere possibility has not been dispelled over a year later. In addition, this summer's sustained public focus on racial injustice and violence continues to highlight how decades of negative social and political determinants of health for communities of color translates into deep mistrust of any government-sponsored activities.

Unknown at the start of the year, perhaps the biggest factor in the census undercount will be the COVID-19 pandemic. The unequivocal health disparities experienced by Black and Brown people across the country are evident in the disproportionate rates of infection and death. Many of the communities that need the investment of federal funds the most are the ones that, pre-COVID, were already projected to have lower response rates and incomplete field data collection. A comparison graphic in a recent New York Times article shows that many U.S. regions experiencing high rates of coronavirus infection (e.g., California, Florida, and multiple states in the South) also have high rates of households not counted as of Aug. 19.

What Can Community Advocates Do?
Census Counts, a collaborative campaign involving more than 15 national organizations and dozens of community partners in more than 30 states, are working to mitigate many of the factors that foster unfairness and inaccuracy and have created custom outreach strategies and resources to connect with hard-to-count groups - including communication adapted for COVID. The strategic action network of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities is also supporting locally based strategies which have the potential to be more impactful to neighborhood residents. Authentically engaging these individuals and families substantially improves the potential for increased census count rates.

All parents want the next generation to be healthier, safer, and more resilient than their own. According to the Partnership for America’s Children, focus groups report that parents are more likely to say they are "almost certain" to participate in the census after reading statements and messages about the importance of counting young children. 

Four proven, very convincing messages about needing to count children in the Census: 

  1. Counting your children in the census means your local schools will get more funding for your children. 
  2. The census helps local government plan for the future and determines the level of funding programs and services young children receive from the federal government, including our schools, childcare, housing, public transportation, and medical care. 
  3. Census data will help local government plan for the future and determine where more than $800 billion a year in federal funding goes, including medical services, WIC, child care, funding for public schools, public transit, low-income housing, and special education. 
  4. The census happens once every ten years, so if we don't count a two-year-old, your community will have less funding for education, child care, and other services they need for 10 years, which is most of their childhood. 

These messages, other resources, and tools still have time to make a difference in the remaining weeks ahead.

For additional ideas to jumpstart outreach, listen to the on-demand webinar Take Action: What Census 2020 Means for Your Human Services Organization & Your Clients. With expert advice from the Alliance, the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, learn what strategies can work best for different communities.