The U.S. Census and Racial Equity

As we have entered a new decade, the U.S. Census Bureau is gearing up to conduct the 2020 Census. The census is administered every 10 years to provide an account of demographic changes, appropriate billions of dollars in federal funding, draw congressional districts and collect taxes. Even with such high stakes, more than a million people fail to get counted each decade.

While the 2010 Census overcounted the total U.S. population by 36,000 people, due primarily to duplicate counts of wealthy Whites owning multiple homes, more than 1.5 million people of color were undercounted. The Census Bureau knows this because it checked the validity of its house-to-house count with a sample survey afterward.

In the state of Arkansas, many of the people undercounted were Black, Latino and Pacific Islanders. In recent years, many people have been particularly alarmed at the potential for an even bigger undercount during the 2020 Census due to the Trump administration’s advocacy for inclusion of a citizenship question (the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the motion). Opponents viewed this as a way to discourage many people from responding, given the threat the administration poses to immigrant families. The confusion it created could still affect participation.

Throughout the United States, many people of color disproportionally reside in hard-to-count census tracts characterized by poverty and higher rates of transitional rental housing. When communities of color are undercounted, there can be severe repercussions: redistricting may lead to political districts that do not accurately represent residents, and federal funding allocations can be negatively impacted as well.

In Arkansas, one of the most difficult areas to count is the Delta region. This area is rural, with a high population of Black Americans; and economic hardships have long plagued the region. The Delta is mostly based in the 1st Congressional District, with a few counties located in the 4th Congressional District. Both districts are the only Congressional districts in the state to see a loss in population.

Redrawing district boundaries every 10 years is required by law to ensure population shifts are accurately represented in Congress. However, redistricting often results in gerrymandering, which is when voting blocks are manipulated to amplify certain voices and silence others. With such a large population of people of color in the Delta, it is no secret that gerrymandering has been a tool used for decades to deprive communities of color from accessing political power. An equitable redistricting process should assist communities in securing meaningful representation and should also attempt to keep district boundaries as compact as possible. The more people accounted for in a given district, the more likely representation will reflect the community.

The census also assists in determining the allocation of funding for essential programs and services that benefit communities across our state. Funding for school districts, the Head Start program, Medicare supplemental health insurance, highway planning and construction, and crime victim assistance are just a few programs that use census data to guide their distribution. In Arkansas, the total adds up to $9.7 billion annually, or $3,300 per person counted in the 2010 Census. Over a 10-year period that’s $33,000 per person we’d miss out on if we don’t have a complete count.

Additional factors that may contribute to a census undercount in communities of color include distrust of the government and limited internet access. This year, the Census Bureau encourages the questionnaire to be completed online. It’s not the only way, though. Starting in March, households will receive notices from the Census Bureau to invite them to fill out the nine-question census form in one of three ways.

The best way to encourage people to participate in the census is from a grassroots level. People simply need to see census advocates from within their local communities. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is part of a coalition called Arkansas Counts that has been working for more than a year to ensure that we reach hard-to-count communities throughout the state.

Join us in this effort. Make sure your friends and family are counted wherever they reside on April 1, 2020. Visit https://arcounts.org/ for more information on why the 2020 U.S. Census is so important.