Think the 2020 Census doesn't matter?

A 4-year-old, Tisis and Frackle might help change your mind

By Jennifer Aronson, Associate Vice President for Program

My 4-year-old, Audrey, helping set the table:"We need more plates!!"
Me:"I think we have enough- Daddy, Eleanor, you and I each have one."
Audrey:"What about Tisis and Frackle? They need dinner!!"
Me:"Oh, ok, I didn't know that your friends would be joining us tonight."
Audrey: "Yes, and Axel's here too.

It's a parental nightmare - you expect four for dinner, then find out there are seven mouths to feed. The good news, in this case, is that Tisis, Frackle, and Axel are some of Audrey's imaginary friends.  But what if these friends were human? What if I shopped for 4, but needed food for 7? Or they were staying over? Maybe Tisis and Frackle wouldn't eat, and Axel would sleep on the floor? 

Even something as straightforward as dinner requires a count. And as our dinnertime mini-drama demonstrates, even a 4-year-old can see what happens when that count is wrong. 

Which brings us to the 2020 United States Census. 

The Census is in the Constitution as a foundational requirement of our democracy.  All residents, including non-citizens and undocumented immigrants, are legally required to be counted every ten years.  Census data are then used to allocate nearly $700 billion in federal money each year, redistribute legislative and Congressional seats, and reset House districts.  

In Massachusetts alone, census data drives the distribution of more than $6 billion for programs including Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, Section 8, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Head Start and WIC.  Census data is also critical in determining investments in infrastructure, public health, and transportation.

Even at its best, the census is far from a perfect tool - and research has shown entire communities get repeatedly undercounted, including children, people of color and immigrants. This year, though, we're facing several additional factors that could sabotage the process. These include woeful underfunding of the census by the federal government, and an effort to bring the census online, which threatens to severely undercount those without online access (who are also those most likely to need the services apportioned by Census data).

The issues aren't just logistics. Then there's immigration. The census by necessity needs to count citizens and non-citizens alike. It's why questions about citizenship have never been a part of the census. It also requires getting the best people possible to serve as census workers for communities with large numbers of undocumented residents - who often are undocumented themselves. 

Moves to include questions about citizenship on the 2020 Census, and the likelihood that undocumented citizens will be barred from participating in federally-funded community-based efforts to get a fair and accurate count in marginalized communities further jeopardize an accurate count. 

Even if we set aside the moral imperative of counting everyone, an undercount creates an untenable reality for communities. It will result in lower allocations of needed funds from the federal government for the next ten years, which will, in turn, put more pressure on states, cities, nonprofit organizations and their supporters to fill the gap.

As blogger Vu Le wrote a couple of weeks ago: "Think of it this way: every dollar you spend to help people get counted will be matched many-folds by dollars allocated by the federal government every year until the next Census, in 2030. That's a pretty good ROI."

Le went on to say, "The Census is important. Ensuring that the most marginalized members of our community feel like they count, like they matter, is at the heart of our work. This time, it is literal. Let's work together to ensure everyone is counted."

Although 2020 may feel a long way off, the official Census 2020 mailing list will be finalized in the next few months.  Right now, we have a once-in-a-decade chance to ensure that the data we gather and use to make trillions of dollars in decisions in the coming decade is the best it can be.  We can start today by getting engaged ourselves, educating our colleagues, friends, and family on the importance of the census, and by supporting efforts to get a fair and accurate count such as the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund 2020

For this count, we can't afford to let Tisis, Frackle, and Axel be invisible - because the issues they face are all too real. 

The Boston Foundation plans to host several conversations on Census 2020 in the coming months for nonprofit, business, civic and philanthropic leaders. Please let us know if you would like to be added to our mailing list for these events.