This Simple Math Concept Shapes the 2020 Census — And Your Government Services

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The first U.S. census was conducted way back in 1790, and since then, as mandated by the Constitution, the government has conducted one every 10 years, growing more detailed and complex as the nation grew, too. This will be the 24th time that the country gets counted, and it will be the very first time that it’s partly digital.

More Than Just a Count

At its most basic, the census is designed to count the number of people who live in the country. But the results are far more important than a simple population statistic, and it should be considered a civic duty as much as a legal one. The numbers dictate decisions that impact communities and voting results, including where funds get allocated, how many congressional seats districts get, how to prepare for emergencies, whether or not new schools get built and important infrastructure repairs.

That means that if not enough people don’t respond to the census, federal, state and local governments can’t get an accurate picture of the needs of their community. They might not know that thousands of elderly people have recently moved to the area, and they now need more funds for senior housing and community centers. They might not realize how many people have moved to a coastal region, and need more funding and training for disaster preparedness when an inevitable storm hits. They might have miscalculated how many new residents are commuting to work and school via an old bridge, and desperately need infrastructure funding to prevent its collapse.

Or, even if they know this is happening, they can’t prove it to the lawmakers without the census data, and don’t get the funding they need to help their communities thrive. Already marginalized people begin to slip even further between the cracks.

It might help to think about its importance on a smaller scale, like your school. Let's say the principal wants you to get information about your school's athletic program so that they get more funding to expand and improve it. You wouldn't just talk to the top three athletes at your school, right? You'd want to hear from athletes of all skill levels and sports, plus the people who don't play on a team -- maybe they have input about how to involve spectators more, or can recommend other extracurricular activities for the school to invest in.

When presenting your results, maybe you'd have recommendations to bring to the principal, but she won't hear the recommendations unless you can back up your desire for more funding and expanded programs with numbers and facts. The census operates the same way -- the people in charge want to give citizens their best chance to thrive, but can't do it without the data.

But it’s Not Perfect

As important as it is to fill out the census, it’s also important to note that there are issues with how people get counted. The biggest is that privileged people tend to be counted at higher rates, while marginalized people are counted at lower rates or aren’t recognized, which only reinforces the system of power and privilege.

One example is incarcerated people. They are counted at the address of their prison, not their previous address. This skews data so they are seen as residents of the prison town (even though they cannot vote), so that when areas are redistricted after new census data, the new district numbers don’t reflect the actual numbers or demographics of the people in that area. It's as if your school asked everyone for input on the cafeteria lunch options, including the 60 percent of students who bring their lunch from home and never order anything from the cafeteria. Now, those bag lunch people are getting a say in the pizza toppings, when in reality they'll never order that pepperoni slice. Some states have passed measures to outlaw the practice of prison gerrymandering, since it goes against what the Constitution dictates should be one person, one vote.

Another example is the counting of members of the LGBTQI+ community. While the 2020 census will recognize same-sex couples, there will be no way to indicate an individual’s sexual orientation. More accurate numbers could help the the country’s LGBTQI+ community members receive greater legal recognition, funding for organizations that work to protect the rights of the community and increase access to federal funding for programs like Medicaid and public housing.

Potential Digital Divide

Another issue that could arise during the 2020 census is a digital divide. There are plenty of good reasons for the digital upgrade – it could save tons of money, make it easier to collect and streamline data and could encourage some younger people to fill out the census for the first time.

But some experts are also worried it will create a digital divide. You may be used to filling out forms online -- maybe even for surveys that your school conducts. So it can be easy to forget that there are still plenty of Americans who live their lives either entirely or mostly offline. Elderly people and those who live on rural Native American reservations – where a shocking 85% of people lack broadband speeds that meet federal standards – are just some of the 10% of Americans who don’t use the internet.

The census won’t be entirely digital. Those who don’t fill it out online will have other opportunities to fill out via traditional methods, and some communities are installing free Wi-Fi areas or other methods to help people make sure they’re counted. But some are worried that by making the census more difficult for people who already lack internet access, it’s just another example of reinforcing a system where marginalized people (literally) don’t count.

What Should I Do, Besides Fill Out My Census?

One of the most tried and true methods for avoiding miscounts and encouraging people to fill out their forms – either online or via paper – is to run “trusted voices” campaigns. Though the Census Bureau’s top priority is keeping your personal information private, it’s understandable that some people might still be wary about putting information out there. And many people simply don’t trust the government, no matter who’s in charge, and don’t want to be told what to do by a politician in Washington, D.C.

But many of those people do trust the people who live and work in their communities, like teachers, librarians, pastors or community center leaders. You may not hold one of those positions, but if you hear a friend or a family member talking skeptically about the census, run your own “trusted voices” campaign. Listen to their concerns, let them know how important it is that their needs are officially recognized and offer to help them get online to fill out their form.

It could be your trusted voice and kind gesture that helps make sure they’re a valued member of their community who will have their needs met.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.