The U.S. Census—Giving Everyone an Equal Vote

This spring, a ten-minute, nine-question survey—the U.S. Census—will determine the extent to which U.S. residents are fairly and accurately represented by their government.

The crucial process of counting every person living in the country is one of the most important civil rights issues today. Historically, census data has not adequately represented many vulnerable demographics, including people of color, low-income households, and young children. And when people are undercounted, they lose equal political representation and access to resources.

In this article, we look at why undercounts are such a problem, and how language access can help mitigate underrepresentation. We also share an exciting multilingual New York City outreach initiative that aims to make sure every person in the five boroughs is counted.

how 9 Census questions shape the trajectory of our country

The census is the largest peacetime mobilization undertaken by the federal government. By constitutional mandate, all individuals (both citizens and non-citizens) living in the U.S. are to be counted every 10 years. In addition to ensuring fair representation, the census compiles vital information about the changing needs of the people living in our country and informs the allocation of resources (dollars and people) to federal programs. Census data is used to determine the apportionment of more than $650 billion in federal funds for critical programs and services, including public education, public housing, social services, and infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

how does the us census bureau collect data?

In March, the U.S. Census Bureau will invite every household to participate in the census survey, which will be made available in 13 languages. While it was once necessary for clipboard-carrying census takers to visit homes across the country, there are now multiple ways to submit the questionnaire. For the first time ever, the bureau is permitting people to answer online. While most questionnaires are expected to be submitted digitally, people will also have the option to respond by phone or mail.

what is the purpose of the US Census and what’s at stake?

one person, one vote

The census affects the balance of power. Population counts determine how the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives will be apportioned across the states. Final counts will be published by December 31, 2020 to decide how many seats each state will be allocated in the 2022 U.S. House elections. Results will also inform the number of votes each state will have in the 2024 electoral college.

In addition, census totals are used to adjust or redraw electoral districts, based on where populations have increased or decreased. Redistricting is intended to ensure that each person’s voting power is roughly equivalent—adhering to the one-person, one-vote rule. Redistricting data from the 2020 census will be published within one year of Census Day, by no later than March 31, 2021.

allocation of funds

The Census informs the amount of funding the federal government allocates to state governments and local communities. Counts impact the distribution of funds for public hospitals, education, transportation, and affordable housing. This includes planning and funding for:

  • healthcare—including programs such as Medicaid, Medicare Part B, State Children’s Health Insurance, and the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.
  • education—including Head Start, Pell Grants, school lunches, rural education, adult education, and grants for preschool special education.
  • infrastructure—including programs for highway planning and construction, Section 8 housing, federal transit, community development, and rural water and waste disposal systems.
  • employment and training—including programs for vocational rehabilitation state grants, dislocated workers, and American Indian and Alaska Native employment and training.

investments in communities

Census data helps businesses understand community needs. Companies use demographic information to make decisions about investment strategies, and the data can impact decisions about whether or not to do business in a particular community. Census responses can potentially impact economic growth and job creation in communities.

who’s missing? omissions and underrepresentation

Underrepresentation is a big problem. In the 2010 census, there were nearly 16 million omissions (people who should have been counted, but were not).1 Unfortunately, the people who most need community resources are often the most reluctant to participate. According to Census Bureau research, the groups most underrepresented in the census include minorities, foreign-born residents, renters, low-income individuals, the homeless, and children under the age of five.2

The reasons are varied and complex. People who have low incomes, especially people of color, are more likely than others to live in nontraditional or multi-family dwellings, rent their homes, and move more frequently, all of which makes it harder for the Census Bureau to locate and count them.

Then there’s the heightened environment of suspicion, misinformation, and distrust. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share personal information with other agencies. The information collected cannot be used for any purpose other than statistical ones, and it cannot be used to harm the people who provide their information. Despite the legal protections, many people will still be reluctant to participate. Some are not aware of their rights, others mistrust the government and do not believe their data will be protected.

The proposed citizenship question didn’t help matters. While the Supreme Court has prevented the addition of a citizenship question, many believe that irreparable harm has already been done. Concerns about deportation are still likely to keep noncitizens from participating, whether they are in the country legally or not. Many incorrectly believe a citizenship question is on the questionnaire. The Census Bureau, which conducts more than 100 surveys for the federal government, continues to ask about citizenship on other forms, which has added to the confusion.

People with low English proficiency are especially at risk for believing that their Census data will be used against them. In 2017, the Center for Survey Management conducted multilingual focus groups to study the doorstep messages enumerators can use to overcome reluctance in responding to the 2020 Census. Focus groups were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, and Arabic. Serious concerns about the confidentiality of data, including between agencies, negative perceptions of immigrants, and deportation emerged across languages in this project.3

chart: census fears

One way to mitigate the misinformation and distrust is through effective communication. Informing people of their rights, and doing so in the language they understand, will help allay the spread of misinformation. Educational campaigns, translated into the languages spoken by residents, can help clear up some of the confusion and alleviate the fears of those who speak other languages.

how New York City is encouraging residents to stand up and be counted

Throughout the country, state and local governments along with community-based organizations are making efforts to ensure widespread participation in their communities. New York City is leading the charge with the nation’s largest municipal coordinated census campaign.

In 2010, only 62% of New Yorkers self-responded to the census, way below the 76% national average. According to Census Bureau predictions, this year’s response rate is expected to be even lower at 58%.

As an incredibly diverse, multilingual city, New York presents a range of challenges:

  • Almost 40% of New Yorkers are foreign-born
  • 200+ languages are spoken throughout the five boroughs
  • Historical distrust of government in communities of color
  • Fear and disinformation have been spread by the now-defunct citizenship question
  • Complex and varied residential infrastructure
  • Historically low turnout rates

The city’s immigrants, minorities, and low-income individuals have the highest risk of being undercounted. However, these are the groups that stand to suffer most due to the potential loss of resources. In an effort to obtain a more accurate census count, the city approved a $40 million, multi-pronged initiative. The majority of that funding, $23 million, will go to community-based organizing and outreach, making it the largest such investment by any city in the nation.4

The Complete Count Fund, a joint project of NYC Census 2020, the New York City Council, and the City University of New York, selected 150 community-based organizations to receive “get out the count” funding. These organizations serve 245 neighborhoods across the five boroughs, in 80 languages.

The city is investing $3 million in community and ethnic media advertising to ensure participation among the city’s most historically undercounted communities. Using brochures, fact sheets, commitment cards, videos, and bus ads, the campaign explains why it’s so important for New Yorkers to participate in the Census, and asks residents to pledge their participation. To reach all New Yorkers, the Census campaign is advertising its message in up to 22 languages. Eriksen has been supporting the city’s efforts by translating campaign components so the critical messaging can reach non-English speakers throughout the five boroughs.

Groups of volunteers, Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees (NOCCs), are organizing, educating, and mobilizing their communities around the 2020 Census. Volunteers are arranging teach-ins, phone-banks, and text-banks to get out the count. And because all the NOCCs and their volunteers will be rooted in their communities, they will have organic connections to the culture, needs, and resources of their neighborhoods.

get out the count

When people are undercounted, they have less political power. And it is often the people most in need who lack representation and access to resources. The integrity and effectiveness of the 2020 Census are at risk if we are not addressing the needs of people living in the hardest-to-count-neighborhoods.

At Eriksen, we applaud the efforts New York City and other state and local governments across the country are making to ensure that all people are counted. We are proud to be providing translation services to support New York City’s get-out-the-count efforts and help their important messaging resonate across languages.

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1. O’Hare William. “Understanding Who Was Missed in the 2010 Census” Population Reference Bureau, Accessed March 11, 2020.
2. McGeeney, Kriz, Mullenax, Kail, Walejko, Vines, Bates, and Trejo. “2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study Survey Report” United States Census Bureau, Accessed March 11, 2020.
3. “MEMORANDUM FOR Associate Directorate for Research and Methodology (ADRM)” United States Census bureau, Accessed March 11, 2020.
4. “Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson, NYC Census 2020, CUNY, More Than 160 Community Partners Convene for Complete Count Campaign Kick-Off and Release of Campaign Plan”, Accessed March 11, 2020.