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Every Person Counts: Why Philanthropy Must Help Save the Census

July 31, 2018

2020_censusIn philanthropic circles, when we talk about protecting democratic institutions and values we often focus on expanding voting rights, improving representation, and connecting impoverished communities with the resources they need. However, all these issues — and many others — are tied to another fundamental pillar of American democracy: the decennial census.

Every decade since 1790, the government has counted the American population, as mandated by the Constitution. While it took the Fourteenth Amendment to ensure that all people were counted equally, the census has nonetheless performed an essential role in maintaining and improving our democracy. Today, our country uses census data to apportion congressional representation; to draw federal, state, and local legislative districts; and to enforce civil rights laws. Businesses use census data to decide where to open, offer jobs, and provide goods and services. The census helps cities and states identify locations for large infrastructure projects like schools, senior centers, public transportation, hospitals, and police services. It determines how roughly $700 billion in federal funds in 2015 were distributed and allocated to programs such as Medicaid, Head Start, and Section 8 housing.

If the 2020 census yields inaccurate data, programs like these — and the people who depend on them — will be in serious jeopardy. Projects may be deprived of crucial funding and entire communities denied fair representation in government. In other words, the consequences of a poorly conducted census will ripple through the public and private sectors, and through civil society, for at least the next ten years.

Unfortunately, there are mounting challenges to achieving a fair, accurate, and complete census in 2020.

The Census Bureau notes that certain populations — people of color, young children, and rural households among them — have been undercounted historically. On top of that, Census Bureau researchin 2017 revealed that the current political climate could further discourage census participation. According to the bureau's own Center for Survey Management, concerns about data sharing and privacy are growing, "particularly among immigrants or those who live with immigrants," which in turn could have a "disproportionate impact on hard-to-count populations."

In March 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross intensified the problem by adding a question about citizenship to the census, which Ross said at the time was at the request of the Department of Justice. The decision was made, however, without first testing the impact the question might have on response rates and quality. Most experts, including six former directors of the bureau, agree that adding the question will likely lead to the undercounting of already marginalized communities, including communities of color and those that are home to significant numbers of immigrants. In fact, back in January, months before Ross made his decision, the Census Bureau clearly stated the addition of the question "harms the quality of the census count."

The evidence we do have suggests this will be the case. A new analysis shows that in 2016, when a small sample of the population was asked the citizenship question on the American Community Survey (ACS), it went unanswered by a whopping 6 percent of respondents — more than any other question that will be included in the 2020 census. (To put that in perspective: 6 percent of the entire country is millions of people.) Moreover, in recent focus groups, participants of color were alarmed about the citizenship question and believe members of their communities will be less likely to fill out the census if the question is included.

At the same time, the 2020 census also will be the first census conducted primarily online, and this uncharted territory is filled with potential challenges. In light of the ongoing conversation about cybersecurity, for instance, are we certain that census data will be kept confidential and secure? Will the public be able to identify bogus efforts to obtain their personal information? Are we prepared to deal with intentional campaigns to spread misinformation? Beyond security, there are many questions about access. Will online forms be optimized for lower-income individuals who rely on smartphones? And how does the Census Bureau plan to bridge the digital divide to reach rural, low-income, and minority respondents? Unfortunately, we're not sure of the answers to any of these questions, in part because the technology has not been thoroughly tested. In fact, while the bureau planned to conduct three tests of the system, two were canceled.

Compounding our concerns about technology, the census has been suffering from a severe lack of funding. Typically, Congress ramps up funding three years before the census itself, but in 2017 no such increase was approved. As a result, the bureau is way behind where it should be in terms of conducting opinion research and getting the word out (in multiple languages). Even though Congress recently approved additional census spending, there are no guarantees the increase will be enough — or will be renewed in 2019.

The good news is that we still have time. Those of us working in philanthropy cannot make up the shortfall in federal funding for the census, but we can leverage our resources and expertise to make sure it is fair and successful.

Right now, a coalition of foundations and advocates is working with civil rights leaders, census experts, business leaders, faith-based groups, digital specialists, and others to develop and implement a strategic response to these challenges. This unique initiative includes a plan to reject the citizenship question, leverage digital opportunities to get the word out, and launch a robust outreach effort to encourage the public, especially those who are hardest to count, to step up and be counted.

To date, more than sixty-five funders have provided strategic funding to more than seventy organizations for census-related work, and we are beginning to see results. Awareness of the issue is higher, and happening earlier, than ever before. The Census Bureau's 2018 budget has been significantly increased. And legal challenges to the citizenship question have grown steadily in number. This is only a beginning, however. To continue with our strategy and shore up the census over the next two years, those of us in philanthropy still need to raise an additional $35 million for the national effort — and more at the state level for local outreach to hard-to-count communities.

That's why we need your help. Every philanthropist and foundation has a stake in the census, no matter what they fund, or where. It is incumbent on us to do whatever we can to guarantee that it proceeds accurately and apolitically, ethically and efficiently. But we are running out of time.

Together, we must use our voices, our platforms, and our networks to push for the removal of the citizenship question, identify trusted voices in communities likely to be undercounted who are willing to promote participation, and make sure that the data the census generates is inclusive and accurate. We must be prepared to contribute our financial resources, infrastructure, influence, and expertise to those working on the ground.

Ultimately, the census is not just about the survey. It's about the future. If it fails to yield an accurate count, communities will be starved of crucial resources, and all of us, but especially those with the least power — people living in poverty, children of color, new immigrants — will have to live with the consequences. The next decade of data-driven decision-making for our democracy is on the line. Every person in America counts, and it's up to us to make sure they're counted.

Gary D. Bass, Antonia Hernández, Barbara Picower, and Darren Walker are the chief executives (respectively) of the Bauman Foundation, California Community Foundation, the JPB Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Bass is, in addition, an affiliated professor at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy and chair of the funder collaborative to promote a fair and accurate census described above.

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