Census: Battleground for Money and Justice

Rick Cohen’s analysis shows us why the 2010 Census is so important and what nonprofits can do now to make sure everyone is counted.

Census: Battleground for Money and Justice
11 mins read

The Census is especially important for nonprofits on the front lines of serving communities.

Suppose the U.S. Census had forgotten to include Chicago? In 2000, the U.S. Census missed three million people, the approximate population of Chicago. If we had missed three million people at random, maybe it wouldn’t have made a big difference. But most of those we missed are poor people, people of color and children. In other words: the Census missed much of the nonprofit sector’s communities.

The importance of the Census (conducted every ten years) cannot be understated, especially to nonprofits on the front lines of serving communities. And it’s not just the numbers: it’s getting race properly identified.

In addition to your organization’s already over-burdened work agenda, it’s hard to get excited about finding people who ought to be counted. But one Census official estimated that at least in her community, each person counted resulted in $3,900 more in federal and state funds. So getting people counted is key to making sure that your community doesn’t lose out on formula grants from state and federal government agencies.

[More on the “undercount:” How do we know how many people we didn’t count? Short answer: doing in-depth research in selected areas and then comparing that with what the Census showed for the same areas.

And actually the 2000 Census missed 6.4 million people, but doublecounted 3.1 million others, so the “net undercount” was about three million.]

Controversies about what and who to count

The first census in 1790 asked six questions, which immediately clues us in about the politics and culture of gathering information: the name of the head of household, and the numbers of free white males 16 and older, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons (by sex and color), and slaves — slaves being counted as 3/5 of a person each. Native Americans were not counted at all.

But despite this early emphasis on race and gender, today some members of Congress and anti-immigrant advocacy organizations would rather not count some population groups at all. Last fall Utah Senator Robert Bennett introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate (Congresswoman Virginia Foxx introduced a companion bill in the House) to stop counting non-citizens when apportioning Representatives in the Congress.

A proposed checkbox on the Census form would presumably allow you to voluntarily identify yourself as a non-citizen. The purpose was clear: to suppress counting immigrants. Fortunately this proposal was rejected on a strict party line vote (Republicans pro, Democrats anti).

Much of the drive for an anti-immigrant approach to the Census has come from the right, with groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA, and the Minutemen. Conversely, some progressive Latino activists have called for immigrants to boycott the Census in an (to us mistaken) effort to “force” Congress to pass immigration reform.

In fact, Latinos and Hispanics are among those least likely to be correctly counted due to the byzantine method for identifying race in the Census.

“Dirty tricks” on the Census

As much as anti-immigrant groups may be scaring people away from Census forms, it’s also true that this is the first Census in decades conducted under a Democratic president — and an African-American at that. Early on, Obama attempted to move the Census out of the Commerce Department but ultimately had to retreat.

But the battle continued. The President nominated a Census Bureau chief who recognized the possibility of using statistical sampling methods to get a full count of people who might otherwise be undercounted. To scientists and the left, sampling is a modern way to supplement counting. To the right, sampling is a nefarious political plot.

As a Bush-era Census director told the Wall Street Journal, (left-wing) politicians were likely to deploy sampling-generated population numbers for “fuzzier and fuzzier” uses, like redrawing the boundaries of Congressional districts.

But the conservative opposition isn’t limiting itself to arguing about technical questions. For example, the Republican National Committee mailed out an official looking questionnaire labeled “2010 Congressional District Census,” replete with a “census tracking code” and a “Do Not Destroy, Official Document” warning.

This and other “faux census” mailings mislead and confuse people, and scare others into believing it’s dangerous to complete the real forms.

Nonprofits make government work… again

On the other hand, what can a nonprofit do besides volunteering precious hours and attention to support the work of a large federal agency? Here’s our take on what community nonprofits should be doing related to the Census:

1. Use our community connections and trust to make sure our constituents get counted.

Nonprofit community organizations not only know their communities, they are trusted by the people in those communities. As the head of the Census Bureau discovered in Texas, residents were not going to open their doors to him unless he was accompanied by people they trusted and even then, the presence of sheriff’s department personnel scared some people.

Some organizations, notably the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, are organizing through affiliates around the nation to reach out to ethnic, racial, and immigrant populations that could be undercounted or dissuaded from Census participation.

Human services organizations and community organizers can link up in common cause. Example: some San Francisco Chinese nonprofits are holding “Bring in your Census form” days when people can bring their forms to trusted, Chinese-speaking nonprofits for assistance in completing them.

We can re-deploy the army of young people who gather signatures on petitions to work on publicizing the value of the Census in the first week of April.

2. Make the Census a part of the our core communications.

Make the Census a part of the our core communications from now through the end of the summer-when the Census “enumerators” will be finishing their visits to Census non-filers.

Let’s focus on the two fundamental reasons behind our support for an accurate Census: Congressional representation that reflects our populations and federal funding for our programs.

In addition to Congressional representation, the Census count is a major factor in the subsequent decade’s allocation of funds in the nation’s 10 largest federal assistance programs, according to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. PriceWaterhouse told Congress that the 2000 Census undercount cost “the 58 largest counties adversely affected by the undercount” a total of $3.6 billion in federal funding between 2000 and 2012.

Remember, while population estimates can be challenged, the final Census count cannot be.

How does the Census become part of a community-based nonprofit’s message? By inserting bits of census information everywhere: brief statements of why the Census is important, dates when the questionnaire will be mailed, dates when enumerators will be knocking on doors, and so forth.

3. Help people navigate the race and ethnicity questions.

Questions 8 and 9 in the 10-question Census questionnaire ask respondents to identify their race or, in the case of Latinos, ethnicity. These are the statistics that the government will use to enforce civil rights laws such as the Voting Rights Act and fair housing and community reinvestment statutes. If people are scared off from being counted, the resulting undercount will only weaken anti-discrimination enforcement.

Here’s where nonprofits can provide specific person-to-person help. Respondents may not realize that they can pick and choose among the printed categories or insert their own. Helping people complete race and ethnicity information correctly could be hugely important.

Guiding people to fill in the information without fear of government authorities banging down the door may be even more significant among hard-to-reach population groups.

4. If our mission is helping people, then our mission includes getting those the funding and representation they deserve… by getting them counted in the Census.

Why aren’t we up in arms over potential lost dollars and vanishing Congressional seats? Why haven’t we flooded our neighborhoods with legions of staff and volunteers knocking on doors to offer personal assistance? Tim Delaney of the National Council of Nonprofits cites three reasons: “The brutal economy has put many nonprofits on the ropes just trying to survive.

The Census is six weeks away. And getting involved to promote and conduct the United States Census is not in the mission statement of most nonprofits.” But he also continues: “Despite these concerns, many nonprofits are proudly rolling up their sleeves to help their communities with the Census.”

Getting $3,900 per person into your county may not be in your mission statement, but if your organization could do that for 100 people who are likely not to be counted, wouldn’t you do so? Engaging in work to make the Census accurate and reflective of our communities ought to be in our DNA.

Not only can we contribute to making the count accurate, we might even help save the Census from itself. Budgeted at $15 billion, the 2010 Census is running into a bevy of cost and management issues, such as the staffing and software problems reported in a Commerce Department Inspector General’s report released on February 16th.

Nonprofits have long been accustomed to making government programs work. In 2010, we have to step up to the plate again to make the Census work as it was intended.

About the Author

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Rick Cohen‘s investigative reporting appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. His articles on the Decline & Fall of the Vanguard Foundation recently won a Min Award for journalism. A memory from his days as Director of Housing and Economic Development for an unnamed city in New Jersey includes giving a conference speech in Atlantic City on real etate tax abatements, and then playing blackjack at the “cheapo $5 table” the rest of the day while waiting for the mayor so they could go home.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

10 thoughts on “Census: Battleground for Money and Justice

  1. I appreciate everything I read in this article! I’m glad you’re drawing attention to this issue.
    It’s hard to read a whole article about who’s represented and counted by the census – and not see even a mention of LGBT people and same-sex couples. Please join the effort to draw attention to our cause as well.
    Matt Smith, LMSW
    Austin, TX

    1. Dear Matt,

      From a devil’s advocate point of view: I live in San Francisco so I’m not  timid about  giving information to a census-taker about my lesbian status.  But, what about those who live in less "open" sectors in our country? What about those  who are scared to death to have a check-mark placed next to their name to be kept in government computers?   How accurate could a survey be right now that included the gay-identifier question?

  2. Dear Matt: Absolutely right! There’s a good article in the Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-census-gay-marriage-20100212,0,3499905.story) on the ability of LGBT couples to identify themselves as “husband and wife” or “unmarried partners”, now that the nation has progressed from the positions of both the Clinton and Bush administrations that gays could not marry and therefore, if same-sex couples checked “husband and wife”, the Census Bureau would automatically change the status to unmarried partners. This is still a very short Census form. For a more accurate and nuanced population count, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example, wants future Census efforts to include a question on sexual orientation. Not being a Census expert, I would guess however that the post-decennial Census estimated counts such as the American Community Survey will have to include modifications to provide a more accurate and comprehensive count of the LGBT population in the U.S. Thanks very much for the reminder.

  3. A possible ugly truth re:  lack of accurate count of people in poorer neighborhoods:   How many people signing up to work the Census, when assigned a less "safe" neighborhood (read: poor, always) will  feel confident enough to want to follow through on the job?

  4. A telling story from the Census itself was of a house in the Mission District (46% Hispanic) of San Francisco, where 12 people in three separate households were living. Only 5 of these people were counted by the Census, because the person speaking to the Census worker did not understand that "household" meant everyone living in that residence rather than everyone in his household/family. This story was part of the post-Census, in-depth ethnographic work with samples that was done to test the accuracy of the Census count.

  5. I want to applaud the nonprofits working to promote the Census, and the Foundations funding them. At Access Strategies Fund, we have led a funding collaborative, The Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, that is bringing half of a million dollars in grants and other resources to nonprofits. Grants have already been awarded.

    Visit http://www.accessstrategies.org/programs/massachusetts-census-equity-fund for more information.

  6. I work at a small historical society and we have another important reason for wanting people to fill out the Census – history! The Census is a primary resource for later generations to use in finding their ancestors. Census data is only used in aggregate until 72 years have passed, after which the specific information each household has supplied is released. This allows for data privacy, but also gives genealogists a treasured source of family information.

    My organization has submitted a letter to the editor of our local paper urging people to fill out the Census from the historical point of view. I’ve also seen many, many articles in the paper urging readers to fill out the Census for the reasons you’ve cited, Rick.

  7. The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Coalition has worked hard to hold everyone accountable and make sure the Census gets around to counting everyone in one of the most difficult areas of the country to count.


  8. Just a point of information: Illegal aliens are NOT constituents of duly elected representatives in government. They are foreign nationals. Can you think of any reason they should not be identified as such? I agree they should be counted, and we should know where they are. There is no justification for counting them when it comes to apportioning Congressional representation, though, as they are not eligible to vote.

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