Census 2020: Don't get mad, get counted

Census 2020: Don't get mad, get counted
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The Supreme Court will imminently decide on whether to uphold the Trump administration's decision to ask all respondents of the 2020 Census, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” New evidence has recently come to light, suggesting the political and racial motivations behind the question, which will likely frighten non-citizens, especially Hispanics, from responding. The result would lead to an inaccurate count with potentially devastating consequences for the nation's future. Texas, Florida and California stand to lose at least one congressional each seat because of the question.

But there is a way to overcome the question’s malicious effects: Everyone must stand up and be counted, without fear. 

Regardless of how the high court rules, our elected officials, 2020 candidates, political parties and community leaders must encourage maximum turnout for the census, with the same vigor they use to get out the vote. Just as all who live in this country have a civic duty to answer the census, our nation’s leaders have an obligation to ensure this constitutionally required effort succeeds. To advocate for widespread census response in the most effective way, our leaders must emphasize three critical aspects: confidentiality of answers, economic benefits and the simple, but powerful acknowledgement of each person’s existence, by their government.

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The citizenship question is estimated to cause a 5.8 percent decline in the response rate of households with at least one non-citizen. That means 6.5 million people (more than the entire population of Missouri) who will be deterred from responding and an additional $91 million in taxpayer funds needed to conduct follow-up to ensure an accurate count.

But the citizenship question is not the only major challenge facing the Census, which is predicted to have an overall self-response rate of only 60.5 percent.

In January, the Census Bureau issued its “Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study” (CBAMS) which revealed that the biggest inhibitors to response were: lack of knowledge about the census; apathy; lack of confidence about the ability to influence government; privacy; and general distrust of government. These barriers compound the difficulty in enumerating traditionally “hard-to-count” populations of young children, itinerant persons, low-income families, persons experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ persons, undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities and non-English speakers.

As if that were not enough, adding to these challenges will be the fact that the 2020 Census will be the first to employ online response and will have to compete for the nation’s attention in the midst of what promises to be a clamorous primary season and presidential campaign. 

But we can do this, especially if we, and our leaders, keep the following in mind:

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Confidentiality will fight fear

Alarmingly, most people surveyed for the CBAMS believed the citizenship question was designed to ensnare non-citizens for deportation. What our leaders must emphasize is that responses to the Census are strictly safeguarded:

1. By federal law, information collected during the census can only be used for statistical functions and not for immigration or any other enforcement purposes.

2. Title 13 of the United States Code, along with other federal statutes, prohibits the Census Bureau from publishing any respondent’s private information, including their names, addresses, or other personally identifiable information.

3. Census employees take these protections extremely seriously. After all, their jobs, and more, depend on it. They are bound to maintain the confidentiality of responses for their lifetimes, or face up to 5 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. 

Economic benefits 

We cannot wish away the pernicious effects of the citizenship question, nor can we condemn the entire undertaking to failure based on a single question. Our leaders must spread knowledge about how census data shapes the nation’s future in order to prevent that one question from undermining this country’s largest and most important civilian undertaking and the economic benefits that it underwrites:

1. Accurate decennial census data determines distribution of over $900 billion of federal funding including for Medicaid, Medicare Part B, food stamps, highways and construction, Pell Grants, National School Lunch and other critical programs.

2. It is not simply “sanctuary cities” or Democrats concerned with social programs that are advocating for an accurate count. American industry including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation, Levi Strauss, Uber, Nielsen and others have raised concerns that the quality of the census data they rely on to plan store locations, distribute goods and conduct marketing will suffer due to the inclusion of the citizenship question.

3. Urban planners, emergency management officials and utilities to design cities, rely on an accurate census to prepare for disasters and properly route power grids and sewer lines. 

Counting everyone

Census Day (the reference or “as of” date for the questionnaire’s answers) is less than a year away — April 1, 2020. Starting in January 2020, the first census enumerators will trek across the frozen tundra of Alaska visiting Toksook Bay — getting a head start to count, while the hardened ground allows for easier access – by snowmobile, dogsled, or bush plane. 

The census takers’ primary mission may be to collect data, but that data ultimately serves as a measure of who we are as a nation. The census takes a snapshot portrait of the entirety of this nation through a panoramic lens irrespective of immigration status, voting eligibility, age, or other factors that have prevented the people who live in this country from being full participants in its civic life. The census counts: immigrant laborers in shadows fueling our economy; tribal members purged from voter rolls because of the wrong address on a driver’s license; ex-cons who have paid their debt to society; high school students, whether marching for life or gun control, but frustrated that they turn 18 after election day; factory workers in the rust belt, coal miners in Appalachia, and farmers in the heartland, who can vote because they were counted and apportioned representation; and children who will one day inherit this country — in other words, we the people, are all counted.

To all those worried about the citizenship question and angered by the latest evidence of misconduct designed to skew the count — we share your outrage, but implore you: Don’t get mad, get counted. 

Barry K. Robinson served as chief counsel for Economic Affairs (ESA) at the United States Department of Commerce from 2011-2018, where he was the lead legal officer for the Bureau of the Census. Edgar Chen served in the Department of Commerce Office of General Counsel from 2016-2018 and prior to that, in the Department of Justice where he held a variety of positions including counsel to the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division.