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Understanding the Census: An Inaccurate Count Will Lead to a Decade of Injustice

Gregory Johnson — Managing Director, Economic Equity Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

In 2010 and 2011, while working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I provided census and redistricting training workshops to coalitions of mostly experienced activist grassroots community organizations in 19 states.

What we learned was that in not a single instance had these assertive, creative, really smart folks understood the connection of census or redistricting to their electoral or policy agendas, nor did they understand how race and class drive the census and redistricting outcomes.

Nor did they see themselves as the actors who could emerge to become public officials, rather than the traditional “leaders” who gravitate toward these roles.

Our analysis was treated by many participants as a “revelation,” an unlocking of the mystery surrounding the barriers to their electoral or policy efforts. We were surprised by their surprise. These were sophisticated organizers but still hadn’t made the connection between the census and resources and policy implications.

Participant organizations across these states committed to intense engagement in the efforts to obtain a full count and fair districts, and incorporating census and redistricting analysis and work into their long-term electoral strategies. What has come of that in each instance I am not so sure. We raised consciousness and understanding but were not asked to provide further assistance. Which is logical.

What is clear is that mayors today do recognize the importance of the census. According to the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors, completed in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, 82 percent of the 150 mayors surveyed reported they were “very” or “somewhat concerned” about their population being undercounted; only 6 percent of mayors were “not concerned at all.” The Foundation supports the survey as part of our commitment to communities in recognition of the special role they play in supporting social and economic mobility.

The battle lines today are reminiscent of the 1960s when the Confederates had to concede the right to vote but were determined not to share power. But, of course, it also reminds me of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, and 2010s. Then as now, we need to get out the count for hard-to-count communities.

There are serious consequences to the inability of the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020 to accurately count minorities, low-wealth, student, and undocumented persons in contravention of the U.S. Constitution requirement that every 10 years every person be counted.

When communities are not accurately counted, they may lose critical funds needed to improve their quality of life along with their capacity to impact the formation and implementation of policies.

The census count is used to:

  • Determine where households are located, how many persons live in them, and the distribution of the population by race and ethnicity by state, counties, and municipalities
  • Allocate representation in the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Determine reapportionment of election districts on the basis of one person-one vote for every public office at the state, county, and municipal levels for which elections are held by districts, and for judicial districts in those states that elect judges
  • Allocate $400 billion in federal programs to be apportioned to the states based on population data
  • Assess and determine where to locate economic development projects and business expansion regarding which businesses are dependent on rich population data that only the census can provide

An inaccurate count of people of color and of low-wealth may shift political power and billions in federal dollars to wealthier white communities.

An inaccurate count in 2020 may result in significant under-representation of communities of color in the 2021 political redistricting that will re-draw the lines for all state, county, and local districts for public officials based on the census count, and rooted in the constitutional principles of one person, one vote and equal protection of the laws, and the Voting Rights Act.

Determinations as to whether redistricting plans comply with these constitutional principles and the Voting Rights Act are, to a significant degree, dependent on the accuracy of the census count.

Inaccurate counting also may further depress the economies of communities of color due to under-participation by communities of color in the statewide distribution of more than $6 trillion in federal funds during the ensuing decade, because the allocation of funds is tied to the size of community populations as determined by the census count.

When communities are not accurately counted, they may lose critical funds needed to improve their quality of life along with their capacity to impact the formation and implementation of policies. This is not only unfair and unjust. It undercuts the integrity of the census and is contrary to its very purpose as mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

  • Report

    Counting the City: Mayoral Views on the 2020 Census

    As the 2020 Census concludes at the end of September, a large majority of the mayors of America’s major cities are extremely concerned that their cities’ populations will be undercounted. In the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors, we asked a representative set of 125 mayors about their efforts to ensure an accurate census count and […]
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