• Bricio Vasquez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2020 •
This spring, families and individuals across the country will complete the 2020 Census form. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau counts every person living in the United States, including unauthorized immigrants. The results determine how many representatives each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. And, critically, the census results determine the allocation of $675 billion in federal funding for public schools and universities.
With just a few phrases in the U.S. Constitution, the founders created a monumental undertaking leading to the creation of the Census Bureau. Local untrained U.S. Marshals conducted the first census by hand in 1790. A century later, the 1890 census used a newly-invented electromechanical tabulating machine with punch cards, cutting the tabulation time from eight years to six weeks. The first census by mail did not take place until 1960.
First Online Census Form
Individuals can complete the census form by phone or mail and, this year for the first time in its history, people can complete the census form online as well. Between March 12 and March 20, households will receive information on how to complete the census form online, using their unique ID.
With the critical importance of the 2020 Census to education, IDRA co-chairs the education subcommittee of Texas Counts, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations mobilizing complete count efforts across the state.
However, the digital census form presents a new challenge since millions of people across the country lack internet access. According to the American Community Survey, 18% of households have no internet access of any kind.
Schools and libraries have a significant opportunity to help people fill out the census form using school computers and community education centers. Many Texas school districts plan to set up census centers where community members can access their form or get assistance completing it.
Census Will Not Ask About Citizenship
The 2020 Census was struck with controversy last year. The Trump Administration decided to add a question about whether or not respondents are U.S. citizens, a question that would have put education resources at risk for millions of Americans. IDRA submitted written comments to the U.S. Department of Commerce stating the census form should not include a question about citizenship (IDRA, 2019). The proposed question was deeply concerning because immigrant communities feared the census could be used as a tool for targeted oppression and deportation of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.
“An undercount of the Texas population of just 1% could translate to a loss of $300 million in federal funding for the state and Texans.”
In the summer of 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the addition of the citizenship question for the 2020 Census, though it did not prohibit inclusion of the question in the future. The Supreme Court sent the Department of Commerce v. New York case back down to the lower court for further review. The Census Bureau printed the census forms without the citizenship question.
But some damage had already been done. Considering heightened enforcement efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the citizenship question controversy instilled fear of the census questionnaire among many in the Latino and immigrant communities.
Schools should understand and communicate to their students and parents that the census is confidential. The Census Bureau is bound by law to protect personal information and cannot release it to law enforcement or other government agencies.
Support by States
State governments usually allocate state resources toward getting a full and accurate count, particularly because they benefit significantly from accurate counts. For example, California allocated upward of $187 million to its complete count effort. Across the U.S. South, where the percentage of people in each state who did not self-respond to the 2010 Census ranged from 19% to 25%, five states allocated funds for complete count efforts: Alabama, $1,240,000; Georgia, $3,750,886; Mississippi, $400,000; North Carolina, $1,500,000, pending; and Virginia, $1,500,000 (NCSL, 2020).
And 10 of the 11 states in the U.S. South established their own complete count committees or commissions. Texas – the second largest state in the country – did not allocate funds and did not establish a complete count committee (NCSL, 2020).
According to the Texas Demographic Center, “An undercount of the Texas population of just 1% could translate to a loss of $300 million in federal funding for the state and Texans” to support housing, transportation, education, health and other services that “directly improve the quality of life for all Texans” (2020).
While Texas invested relatively little in its complete count effort, nonprofit organizations, including IDRA, have collaborated to form an unofficial, statewide complete count committee for Texas. IDRA co-chairs the education subcommittee. Participants’ connections help bring individuals together to communicate the importance of the census and to mobilize efforts across the state, particularly in communities deemed “hard to count.”
Hard-to-count populations include young children, highly-mobile persons, people of color, non-English speakers, economically disadvantaged families, persons experiencing homelessness, undocumented immigrants, persons who distrust the government, LGBTQ individuals, people with mental or physical disabilities, and persons who do not live in traditional housing.
In April 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will attempt to count over 320 million people in the United States. This decennial count is more than just an administrative task. It is central to the nation’s continued democracy. In addition to determining how many members each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade, the census will determine allocation of billions of dollars in federal funds used for critical programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; special education grants; and subsidized housing vouchers.
Most of the nation’s states recognize what is at stake if the census undercounts their populations. Schools are particularly vulnerable to the funding shortfalls if there is an undercount. Educators and community groups can help spread the word on the importance of the census and help dispel myths on the decennial count. To help tool your advocacy, see the box at right with resources to equip you in your census conversations with others in your community.
Potential Challenges to an Accurate Census Count
New Digital Census: Since not everyone has digital access, there are significant gaps in access between White adults and Black and Hispanic adults as well as between rural and non-rural residents. People can complete the census form on paper or by phone as well.
Citizenship Fears: The debate over inclusion of the citizenship question can lead to fear and distrust even though the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the question for the 2020 Census.
Reduced Outreach: Congress decided to spend less per household than for the 2010 count. This means there will be fewer in-person outreach efforts and fewer local census offices, field staff and field tests for the 2020 Census. The largest impact likely will be among groups considered “hard-to-count.”
Data Security Concerns: Apprehension about the security and confidentiality of data could be elevated with the new digital form. The Census Bureau is taking steps to protect data it collects, and the law requires the Census Bureau to protect personal information.
IDRA. (June 27, 2019). IDRA Statement on Education Impact of Supreme Court Decision Blocking Citizenship Question on 2020 Census. San Antonio, Texas: IDRA.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). 2020 Census Resources and Legislation. Washington, D.C.: NCSL.
Texas Demographic Center. (2020). Making Texas Count, website. San Antonio, Texas: University of Texas at San Antonio. https://demographics.texas.gov/data/decennial/2020
Bricio Vasquez, Ph.D., is IDRA’s demographer and education data scientist. He serves as the Texas Counts education committee co-chair. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]