Opinion: The Census Matters

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The ramifications of an inaccurate head count could be felt for years—especially in minority communities.

You might wonder why I am thinking about the census right now, especially since the next one isn’t to be done for another two-plus years. But there’s a lot riding on the census and quite frankly, we should be a little concerned about whether or not the count is going to be accurate.

Aside from the fact that the Director of the Census Bureau quit weeks ago, the new administration in Washington DC has denied the Census Bureau’s request for additional funds to carry out this once-a-decade (decennial) head count.

Why should that matter? Because so many decisions are tied in one way or another to what the census count finds in every corner of the country. Whether we’re talking about Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, money for transportation and roads, education funding, or a hundred other decisions that impact a community—it goes back to the census.

We should also be concerned because we have an administration that has made immigration a battle line. With the fear of deportation widespread, it means that there will be a certain percentage of people who will not want to be noticed let alone answer questionnaires and be counted as part of the census process. 

An undercount in any community, big or small, means that a given community might not qualify for certain funding at the state and federal levels. It will also mean that in terms of grant and loan programs, these same communities might lose eligibility because of an inaccurate count.

In Bridgeton, our population in 1990 was 18,942. In the 2000 census, our number came in at 22,774. After the 2010 census, our number bumped up to 25,349. Through all of these counts, more than a few suspected that these numbers were soft; meaning that there were several thousand that got missed in the count.

Yet, whether the count is accurate or whether it misses a few thousand people, we still have to provide the necessary public services through our schools, in our physical infrastructure, in our public health and first responder infrastructure, and in meeting housing and employment needs.

But it goes beyond the local level. Statewide, it affects our representation in Congress. Having an accurate head count means that each state will have the necessary number of Representatives in the House. While the issue of redistricting is its own mess worthy of a separate discussion, it starts with getting our numbers right on the ground.

The process of administering the census count takes years of preparation ahead of actually putting workers out on the highways and byways of our country. After a census is completed, the Census Bureau spends the first few years crunching and digesting the numbers. Just about the time they get a handle on that, it’s time to begin getting ready for the next head count.

This preparation includes field tests, setting up field offices, getting forms ready, hiring personnel, training census takers, and whatever else is part of the process. Underfunding the census will have serious impacts on regions, states, and communities.

Some have argued that we should just do away with the traditional census count and handle things as we might through a poll or something similar. With technology, this seems tempting, but we should think long and hard before we institute something that can be hacked or tampered with digitally. 

If there is one thing that we should strive for, it is a Census Bureau that is fully funded, fully staffed, and not connected with any one administration’s policy agenda or ideology. If the census is perceived to be a threat to any group in the community, they will do everything in their power not to be counted or even noticed.

This lack of an accurate count will have ramifications that would impact communities for many years to come and if my guess is right, this impact would be felt more in urban communities, minority communities and places where inequality is already in play.

With that in mind, it is important that we are counted, especially here at the local level. Given the current climate, my hope is that the Census Bureau will take proactive steps to ensure that administering the census will not be a cause for fear among any single group in our community. We need to know our numbers.

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