The U.S. Constitution specifically mandates an actual enumeration (count) of all persons. This requirement rooted America’s democracy in the principle that all persons, regardless of where they are from or whether or not they can vote— must be counted.
According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, the constitution imposes a clear duty on the federal government to count all people living in the United States. “Whether they are citizens or non-citizens, whether they were born in the United States or in a distant part of the world, this was a critical part of the framers’ insurance policy against partisan efforts to manipulate the ground rules of our democratic system of government.”
As the nation prepares for the 2020 census, concerns over its accuracy is gaining momentum because data collected by the census determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. And, of added significance and importance to the inland region and communities across the nation, billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated to local communities based on the census counts.
Important as these counts are to the nation’s democracy, the census has a history of weighing against minorities whether it was counting Blacks as three-fifths of a person, using census information to round up Japanese citizens for placement in camps during World War II, or the tendency to undercount minorities while overcounting Whites, has left some in minority communities wary of the census process. Their wariness may be warranted.
Subsequent to the 2010 census, the Census Bureau (Bureau) conducted an extensive assessment that showed there was an overcount primarily of affluent Whites, 0.01 percent (mostly the result of duplicate counts because of their ownership of multiple homes). This was an improvement from the overcount in 2000 of 0.05 percent.
In contrast, the Bureau’s assessment of 2010 census results showed approximately 2.1 percent of Black Americans and 1.5 percent of Hispanics were under-counted. This equaled a combined undercount of 1.5 million people and was statistically comparable to the undercounts experienced in 2000. However, Blacks and Hispanics were not the only minority communities whose numbers were short.
The Bureau also noted an undercount of about five percent of American Indians who lived on reservations and almost two percent of minorities who self-identified as “some other race.”
The undercount of minority communities not only impacts these groups, it places added fiscal pressures on the municipalities where they live because services must still be provided despite the shortage of federal funding that results from an undercount. This is why an accurate count is essential for all communities, particularly places like the Inland Empire where the minority has now become the majority.
In September 2017, the Bureau issued a working paper in preparation for the 2020 Census that found in 2009, more than $400 billion of federal funds were distributed using Census Bureau data. That estimate however, was based on funding for fiscal year 2007.
The number of federal dollars allocated based on census data increased exponentially in fiscal year 2015. According to the working paper’s summary, the Bureau noted at least 132 programs, including seven newly identified programs, used Census Bureau data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds during the 2015 fiscal year.
Included among the programs funded based on census data are Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare Part B, highway planning and construction, Section 8 housing vouchers, Title 1 grant funding for education agencies, nation school lunch program, Special Education Grants (IDEA), State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-Chip), Head Start/Early Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Foster Care and Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP). This is just a small sampling of the 132 programs that depend on an accurate census count for the allocation of federal funds.
Concerns over the historic undercounting of minority groups and the impact it has on funding and representation escalated in late March when U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. In the age of Trump where overheated rhetoric about immigrants and accelerated ICE deportations are the norm, minority advocacy groups are concerned about its impact on census participation.
Last Thursday, Vanita Gupta, President of the Leadership Conference Education Fund was joined by Arturo Vargas, the Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, John C. Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League and Terry Ao Minnis, Director of the Census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, discussed their concerns about the 2020 Census regarding what’s at risk and why it matters to the nation’s diverse populations.
The participants coalesced around some basic themes that included concerns over how the Trump administration’s underfunding of the 2020 Census has delayed and derailed important testing necessary for success; as well as how the ongoing shortage of funds could degrade the census’ ability to avoid undercounts which could result in reduced funding to these communities. In addition, a lack of funding has left the Bureau with a limited capacity to fulfill its requirements because it has not staffed up its partnership program to help with the count.
Participants also agreed the added question regarding citizenship has created significant alarm in many communities. They agreed, it was not needed to enforce voting rights [as claimed by the administration] and it has never been needed to enforce Civil Rights law.” The last time a citizenship question was asked on the census was previous to the Civil Right era.
They were also in agreement that census participation was already going to plummet even before the question about citizen was added and they called Ross’s decision deeply flawed. Census experts from both political parties opposed it. California, New York and at least ten other states have since filed suit against the Trump administration to halt the addition of the citizenship question.
Vargas stated, “The Census Bureau is being forced down a path that will make it difficult for them to count all Americans. There is a great amount of fear in Latino and immigrant communities.”
He added, “This is a tactic to scare people away from participating in the census. We will not cower in fear and we will not allow our community to cower in fear and not be counted. It is our constitution too.”
Immigrants without documentation worry their census information could be used as it was used to round up the Japanese during World War II, however, the law is explicit that the Census Bureau cannot share information about individuals with other federal agencies.
Yang shared the Asian community has experienced a growth rate of 46 percent, making it “the fastest growing immigrant community in the country.” He further stated, “89 percent [of Asians] are immigrants or children of immigrants. The [citizenship] question will suppress census participation.” Yang concluded, “The census is critical to our community.” He noted the constitution calls for “an actual enumeration of all persons not just citizens but all persons.”
Morial stressed how Black Americans have historically been undercounted. The penchant for undercounting this segment of the population dates to the so called “Three-fifths” compromise agreed upon by state delegates during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. “Without reliable data,” he stressed, “it is difficult to track its impact on housing, voting, employment and education.”
In addition, Morial addressed the important issue of prison gerrymandering. Prison Gerrymandering is the census counting of individuals imprisoned in state and federal facilities that are usually located in white rural areas, rather than counting them at their home jurisdiction. As a result, rural communities benefit from the increased allocation of federal funding for such programs as those described above and can also benefit from added representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, while the minority communities, that a good percentage of the inmates call home, suffer from reduced federal funding allocations and less government representation. Added to this, are laws that restrict felons from being able to vote.
Prison Gerrymandering is just one more way America’s system of criminal justice has helped to devastate minority communities. There was a commitment during the previous administration that beginning with the 2020 census, this would change. The Census Bureau had completed the preliminary work to facilitate the change. However, the Trump administration reversed course and cancelled the Census Bureau’s plan. African Americans are 33 percent of the nation’s prison population.
Overall, issues related to the 2020 Census are complex and far reaching. It is estimated the Trump Administration’s citizenship question could cost taxpayers an additional $55 million.
Sometime during the next couple of months, the Census Bureau will post the 2020 Census questions for public comment. The public comment period will last for 30 to 60 days to allow adequate time for people to weigh in on the questions before they are finalized.
Regardless of race, creed, or immigration status, when it comes to the 2020 Census leaders involved in the discussion all agreed, “We must stand up and be counted.”