In an article about the 2020 census, a smiling family lies on the grass together
The Black community is one of many groups that are undercounted by the census each year. (Image via Pixabay, taken by Daniel Park)

The 2020 Census: Who Counts, and Who Is Missed?

COVID-19 might affect the collection of U.S. population data, but the count suffers more because some communities are continually overlooked.

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In an article about the 2020 census, a smiling family lies on the grass together

COVID-19 might affect the collection of U.S. population data, but the count suffers more because some communities are continually overlooked.

The 2020 census has been unlike any other, and while COVID-19 has contributed greatly to this, it’s not the only reason.

On July 1, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it will begin in-person follow-ups with households that have not filled out the census by mid-July. Officials were scheduled to begin going door-to-door in mid-May; however, these plans were delayed following the outbreak of COVID-19.

This year, census officials have been working with community leaders to target undercounted communities and ensure accurate representation.

The census is a decennial count of the entire population of the United States. Census data is used to allocate upwards of $800 billion in federal funds to states and local districts. Shortages in hospital equipment due to COVID-19 are among the many recent developments that have demonstrated the importance of having accurate census data.

In an interview with Ithaca.com, the director for the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office, Jeff Behler, said, “The census data is crucial because funding for hospitals or ensuring there’s enough personnel for ensuring there’s enough supplies, you think about the decisions that are going to have to be made in the future, whether that’s the number of vaccines a community may need, or the number of hospital beds or whatever. We get one opportunity every 10 years. We’re not taking a sample. We’re not projecting. We’re not taking an estimate or creating an estimate. We’re actually reaching out to every household so it’s important that everyone fill out their 2020 Census to ensure their entire families are counted.”

In the interview, Behler went on to explain a situation where census data can make a huge, visible difference: education. For example, if a school has 100 children, and only 80 of the children’s parents filled out the census, 20 children will be unaccounted for. Therefore, the school will only receive enough funding for 80 children and thus not have enough resources for all its students. Simply put, if you’re not counted, you don’t count.

This is a major problem, especially since specific communities have been historically undercounted, leaving many individuals omitted from the data.

According to a report conducted by the Census Bureau, it is important to ensure an accurate count of undercounted or “hard to count” (HTC) communities because “When national censuses miss members of HTC populations it can lead to skewed demographic estimates, underrepresentation within government, and inefficient allocation of public and private resources.”

The Census Bureau identified four reasons why a community may be HTC: hard to locate, hard to contact, hard to interview and hard to persuade. To increase the representation of HTC communities, the Census Bureau and various community organizations have rallied to pursue changes like making the census more accessible by offering it in more languages.

According to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, the census has historically undercounted the Black population in the United States. The 2010 census undercounted the Black community by 9%.

In June 2019, the Urban Institute predicted that anywhere from 1.1 million to 1.7 million Black people will be missed in the 2020 census count. Because of the effects of the global pandemic, that number runs the risk of being even higher.

For some groups, getting an accurate count on the census is made more difficult due to the census not having accurate labels for their communities.

Arab Americans are another historically underrepresented group in the census. One reason is because Arabs fall under the racial category “white.” As a result, there is no accurate count of how many Arab Americans live in the United States.

However, there has been a movement promoting the introduction of a census category called MENA for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. The category was set to be included in the 2020 census, but when the administration shifted in 2016, the plans that had been underway for years were swept under the rug.

Many Arab Americans are instead filling out their racial category as “other” and writing in “Arab,” “MENA” or their country of origin. The hope is that once officials see how many members of the group identify themselves as MENA or a related label, they will be more likely to add the category to the next census.

An additional reason many communities of color are wary of the census is mistrust of the government. In November 2018, Trump made a move to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census. The action was ruled unconstitutional, but it stirred up many fears in immigrant communities that the Census Bureau is still dispelling, even two years later.

To be clear, individual census data is entirely private and is not shared with government officials.

The Census Bureau has engaged in various coalitions with community organizations to make this apparent to HTC communities, as well as raise awareness about the census in general, by creating “Get Out the Count” (GOTC) campaigns, which encourage undercounted communities to fill out the census.

“Count Us In 2020” is a national affiliation of five nonprofit organizations working together to ensure an accurate count of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community. They have organized various webinars, infographics and translations of GOTC materials in 15 languages.

Yalla Count Me In” is a national grassroots campaign created by the Arab American Institute Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and aimed at raising census awareness in the Arab community. The word “yalla” means “let’s go,” and the campaign urges Arabs to pledge to take the census and includes resources in both English and Arabic.

These campaigns are among hundreds of national campaigns aimed at dispelling misconceptions and spreading information about the census. The point of the campaigns is to inform these communities that the census is important, safe and easy.

The census is crucial for vulnerable populations because the data is used to make decisions in virtually every sector of our society. These decisions affect health, education, politics and so much more.

And as in-person visits from Census Bureau officials are starting soon, one can only hope that the pandemic hasn’t completely ruined efforts to get accurate census data.

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