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Making the 2020 Census count: A nonprofit call-to-action

An accurate national census isn’t just a Constitutional mandate, and it isn’t just about ensuring political representation. It’s about support for your mission, for those you serve, and for the vision you pursue each day.

That’s the message of census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal, who spoke to an audience of nonprofits and funders in March at a special event put together by The Sapelo Foundation, the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), and GCN, hosted by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. There are a number of reasons to be concerned about the accuracy of the upcoming 2020 Census, said Lowenthal, who is currently working with the FCCP to educate the charitable sector nationwide and inspire them to take action.

We spoke with Lowenthal over the phone in April, shortly after the White House announced the addition of a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a move that has provoked a great deal of pushback from experts and authorities – which, as of this writing, includes lawsuits from 18 states and multiple cities.

Why is preparation for the 2020 Census an issue that should be on nonprofits’ (already-lengthy) list of priorities?

All of the work nonprofits do is based directly or indirectly on census data, which tells us how many people are in our communities, what their well-being is like, and what types of assistance they may need. This data helps nonprofit assess what needs to be done, where it needs to be done, and who needs help. It also helps nonprofits evaluate how their efforts have made a difference.

As I’m fond of saying, nonprofits know what they know and do what they do because of the census. It’s that simple.

Nonprofits know what they know and do what they do because of the census.

Planning for the 2020 Census has been in the news lately, especially regarding the reintroduction of the citizenship question. What’s the concern?

Though the census has been getting more accurate over the decades, thanks to modern statistical methods and better communications techniques, it doesn’t count all population groups equally well.

It’s the most vulnerable communities – the ones nonprofits serve – that are more likely to be missed. Historically, those are low-income households in both urban and rural areas, immigrants, single-parent female-headed households, young mobile adults, and children under the age of five – especially children of color, 1 in 10 of whom is missed. And because this will be the first high-tech census, older Americans could move into that harder-to-count universe for the first time.

It’s the most vulnerable communities – the ones nonprofits serve – that are more likely to be missed.

The political environment is also a factor. Clearly, anti-immigrant rhetoric and stepped-up enforcement have created a climate of fear. We think that adding a question directly related to immigration status – one which has not been tested in a contemporary setting – is likely to further depress response rates.

What can nonprofits do to help ensure a fair and accurate census?

The ball is now in Congress’s court: As required by law, the commerce secretary submitted the census questions to Congress, but legislators’ approval is implied unless they take action. It’s important to note that it’s Congress’s Constitutional responsibility to ensure an accurate census.

Nonprofits can help on two fronts. One is in the policy arena. You can educate your members of Congress – which does not cross the line into lobbying – by making it clear that a citizenship question could result in a significant undercount in Georgia, and make it harder for community leaders to convince people that it is safe to participate. They can also encourage Congress to adequately fund the census bureau over the next two years. Though it’s been underfunded this entire decade, we still have the opportunity to make sure it has the resources to prepare properly, conduct effective outreach, and deploy workers to reach the hardest-to-count communities.

Members of Congress understand that they all benefit from an accurate census: An undercount means all of their constituents suffer for the next ten years.

The other front is direct community engagement. Each day, nonprofits interact with the populations that are most at risk of being missed. Nonprofits should start thinking of creative ways to promote census participation, for instance by handing out information about the census (maybe in different languages) to people who come in for services. You could also make computers available for people to fill out the census online. Wherever you’re providing healthcare, education, job training, food, senior services, day care – those are all places where people feel safe, and therefore more willing to act on the message.

What makes you think Congress will respond to nonprofit voices?

Members of Congress understand that they all benefit from an accurate census: An undercount anywhere in their districts or states means all of their constituents suffer for the next ten years. Nearly $700 billion a year in federal assistance alone is allocated based on census-driven data – Georgia’s share is more than $14 billion – and that doesn’t even take into account state dollars. Private investment would also suffer: Businesses rely on census data to locate facilities, offer services, create jobs, and fund community development. If the picture is skewed, every decision that looks to it over the next ten years will be wrong.

Everybody in government supports the work of nonprofits, because whatever nonprofits do, government doesn’t have to. Nonprofits should talk about how they use census data to guide their work, and how census-based assistance helps improve life and generate progress for the most vulnerable communities.

To find out more about the census, including the major government funding programs that rely on its conclusions, see this overview from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Interested funders can also join the FCCP’s working group. Welcoming America ED Rachel Peric also highlights an urgent opportunity for action: “Municipal offices and community leaders who work with immigrant communities have a significant role to play. The Local Update of Census Addresses process, already underway, is the only opportunity offered to state and local governments to review the Census Bureau’s residential address list for their jurisdictions. If a resident’s address isn’t on the census master list, they won’t have the opportunity to be counted.”

For information on reaching out to your legislators, visit GCN’s policy and advocacy update center.

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