Making the Census Count: How Regions Can Help

Although 2020 is a few years away, preparations are already in full swing for the next Census. The groundwork that the U.S. Census Bureau is laying out today will affect the accuracy of the 2020 Census across the country.

The Census Bureau is up against a significant accuracy issue: past Census reports have historically undercounted certain populations in the United States. These groups include young children, minorities, and low-income communities. The Census Bureau is once again concerned about this problem occurring in the next decennial Census count.

Why is this significant for NARC members? The George Washington Institute of Policy reports that there are several hundred federal financial assistance programs and sixteen large federal programs that rely on Census data to disperse funds to states and local areas. These programs include funding for housing, health care, transportation, education, and food assistance that your communities rely on. The Census count also determines the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. You may also use Census data to make decisions about your region based on how the population is changing.

The Coalition on Human Needs recently hosted a webinar that highlighted why it is essential for local and state governments, advocacy groups, and the federal government to work together to ensure that the 2020 Census is accurate. The following is a summarization of the points presented during the webinar about the 2020 Census.

Policy and Operational Challenges

The Census Bureau is currently facing a ‘perfect storm’ of policy and operational challenges. The administration, Senate, and House have all proposed approximately $1.5 billion in funding for the Census Bureau in fiscal year 2018. However, the agency needs at least $1.8 billion to carry out all its 2020 Census activities. Congress has also capped the 2020 Census cost at the 2010 Census level, which doesn’t account for increases in the U.S. population over the last decade. The current political climate has also led to a new threat: an amendment to add citizenship and legal status questions to the 2020 Census. This has produced participation fears in many communities.

To make up for the gap in federal funding, the Census Bureau has tried to streamline its operational processes. This comes with its disadvantages. Having half the number of local area census offices and census takers compared to the 2010 Census effort has posed a serious challenge of collecting information across the U.S. The push to make the Internet the primary response option produces a digital divide, especially for seniors and low-income communities that may not have access to a computer. There have also been cybersecurity concerns, promoting worries of having personal information at risk of being compromised.

Undercounted Groups

The following groups have typically been underrepresented in past decennial Census surveys:

  • Young children (ages 0-4)
  • Males
  • Renters
  • Hispanics
  • Hispanic males (ages 30-49)
  • Blacks
  • Black males (ages 30-49)
  • Native Americans
  • Pacific Islanders
  • Immigrants
  • Low-income households
  • The homeless
  • Highly-mobile groups
  • Individuals without Internet access
  • Selected minority-heavy areas

There are several possibilities of why certain populations are undercounted. Places of residence on the Census Bureau’s Master Address File may not be up to date. Some Census takers may not feel the need to include certain people that are living in their home full-time. An example of this could be a grandparent who did not include their grandchild as being a part of their household even though the child is living with them full-time. Complex households can cause confusion when filling out the Census, such as two households who share custody of one child. It is difficult to track highly mobile populations, like renters or the homeless, because their place of residence may often change. Language barriers and government distrust can also lead to underrepresentation in Census data.

What Can Local Governments Do?

The Census Bureau needs your help to make the population count as accurate as possible. Local governments should participate in the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) Operation. LUCA relies on states, counties, cities, townships, and Indian reservations to review and comment on the Census Bureau’s address list before the 2020 Census. This ensures that all addresses and associated populations, which the Census cannot update from governmental data and third-party sources alone, are counted.

The Census Bureau encourages local governments to arrange for a regional planning agency or council of governments to conduct their LUCA review if they lack the resources to do it on their own. This is a clear call to action for regional councils to get involved. You should check with the local governments in your region to see if they can participate in LUCA. If not, you should offer them your assistance to make sure all the addresses in their jurisdiction are accounted for. Otherwise, you may be putting your region at risk for of receiving fewer federal dollars. Visit the LUCA webpage to learn more about LUCA and about how you can get involved.

On the community level, local leaders should encourage participation in the following ways:

  • Advertise the upcoming 2020 Census to your constituents.
  • Create opportunities to educate your community on how to accurately fill out the Census, and clarify misunderstandings for more complicated households.
  • Consider establishing a Census Complete Count Committee in your region. This is a voluntary group that brings community stakeholders together to increase awareness about the Census and urge people to respond.
  • Encourage leaders of your communities, especially those representing historically undercounted populations, to be a “trusted voice” advocating Census participation.
  • Promote the Census Bureau’s high confidentiality with information gathered from the surveys.
  • Craft culturally sensitive messaging about the Census to underrepresented communities.