January 17, 2019 – The U.S. Census is the most ambitious civic engagement effort undertaken by the entire country. Since 1790, the decennial census takes on the enormous task of counting every living United States resident with the mandate of inclusion of all people across gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship and socioeconomic status. The undertaking is so crucial that it’s included in the Constitution and is the cornerstone of how we gauge how our country is changing over time.
The Federal Government is set to distribute $675 billion to state governments based on the 2020 Census. The vast amount of data collected will ultimately help with equitable distribution of these public funds for vital community programs and resources toward housing, education, transportation, health and human services. Census data also informs lawmakers on policy decisions that impact the lives of 330 million Americans and impacts reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Not accounting for every individual living in our region could have a devastating impact on Central New Yorkers for years to come.
Heading into 2020, serious factors threaten our country’s ability to produce an accurate and equitable census count. Undercounting most affects communities of color, low-income neighborhoods and immigrant populations. This disparity deprives underserved communities of political power, government resources and private sector investment, according to New York Counts 2020, a statewide coalition working to ensure that all New Yorkers can fully maximize their Census participation.
The Digital Divide is another factor that may hinder responses. For the first time, the Census Bureau is primarily collecting responses using an online system. While online collection aims to lower costs and improve participation, New York Counts 2020 says it is unlikely to benefit groups already undercounted. Internet access has long been uneven between densely populated and rural areas across the country, as well as limited in low income urban neighborhoods. Households with no computer or adequate internet access are therefore at serious risk of being undercounted in 2020.
In addition, the potential inclusion of a U.S. citizenship question in the 2020 Census is igniting fears that it will fuel an undercount among both undocumented and legal immigrants.
This past fall, the Central New York Community Foundation surveyed 20 direct service providers working in the fields of education, housing, poverty relief, advocacy, new American support, violence prevention, disabilities and policy reform within the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. All work with populations that have historically been underrepresented in Census counts.
Half of the respondents indicated that the majority of their clients do not understand the importance of completing the census; however, half also reported that their organizations were either somewhat or not very familiar with the Census. This suggests a need for education efforts among community organizations. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents believed that language barriers pose a challenge to completion of the census in Syracuse while 84 percent noted lack of information about the value of the Census and fear (68 percent) as contributing factors.
Recognizing how important it is to collect comprehensive and accurate data in 2020, the Community Foundation has already begun work to ensure as many people as possible are counted in Central New York’s hardest-to-count neighborhoods.
Tomorrow’s Neighborhood Today (TNT), a citizen-led group that represents all sectors of Syracuse, received a $20,000 grant to educate city residents on the importance of completing the Census. The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) received a $10,000 grant to support the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) process, which is a once-a-decade opportunity for governments to add, correct or delete addresses on the lists and maps used to conduct the Census.
“Census data directly impacts the Community Foundation’s work, making it critical to us that it be as accurate as possible,” said Robyn Smith, program officer, community engagement. “We rely on the Census to inform CNY Vitals, grantmaking, and initiatives. The Census is also important to the city and county governments across our region. It is estimated that for every one person not counted, communities lose approximately $2,000 in funding per year toward critical programs. “
The Community Foundation, along with many community partners, will be focusing attention this upcoming year on encouraging a complete count in our region. Central New York’s future depends on it.