By Jennifer Edwards
It’s impossible to overstate how important voting in 2020 is, especially if we want to see any progress on critical issues like gun control, police reform, climate change, or the cost of college. But there’s something else in 2020 that’s just as important to our ability to make change happen in the long run, and we’ve got to make sure everyone in our communities participates.
It’s the 2020 census, and, among other things, it will determine how much your vote actually matters for the next decade.
Every 10 years the government has to count everyone in the country, no matter their age, immigration status, gender identity, housing status, or any other personal identity as part of the census. Each person has to answer a few questions, which take up less than a page, and the Census Bureau is bound by law to protect your information and keep it confidential, so the information cannot be shared with another government agency or used against you in any way. Even if you are already registered to vote, have a driver’s license, or paid your taxes, you need to participate because the only way to get counted in the 2020 census is to fill out the census form online, by phone, or on the paper that’s mailed to your home. And although we are in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s still important to have your voice heard.
The state and federal governments use the census to divide up seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College, which is used to decide the presidency. So, participation in the census directly impacts the power of your vote and more. And from school lunch programs to funding for hospital beds and roads, an accurate census count impacts how much money and resources our neighborhoods receive.
Think of the census as part of your responsibility to your community — your friends in that favorite group chat, your local bodega owner, the kids in daycare down the block, your loved ones in the hospital, your parents — and it’s part of your responsibility to yourself. It’s crucial that everyone fill out the census so the community can get government funding for everyone who lives in it. And they need you to fill out the census so that their votes, and yours, for president and Congress really count.
And if you don’t — if the Census Bureau misses some people, or not everyone fills out their forms — it could result in an undercount, which impacts everything from the number of members in the House of Representatives to funding for public transit. Census data plugs into many of the formulas that determine which communities get money from the government. Public transit systems like buses and subways are supported in part by about $13 billion in annual grants from the federal government, and census data plays a big part in deciding who gets those grants and how big they are. If there’s an undercount, that’s fewer tax dollars to your community — and in addition to worse transit options, there’s also less money for roads and bridges.
That’s how an undercount can rob your community of political power and its fair share of tax money. And who usually gets undercounted? The same people who are often ignored in our society: the young, the poor, and people of color.
More than 800,000 Black people weren’t counted in the 2010 census. About 6.3 percent of young Black children were overlooked in the 2010 census, twice the rate of young non-Latinx white children. Young people living on their own for the first time are also at risk of getting missed.
That’s no accident. The people in power know the stakes of the census. They tried to add the citizenship questions to scare undocumented people and their families — and doubled down on it, even after it was ruled unconstitutional. If they don’t advertise the census to us well enough, we don’t know it’s happening. They can make the census sound complicated, like something that doesn’t directly impact our lives and families so we don’t pay attention to it. They’d rather ignore us, shut out our voices, and pretend that some of us just don’t exist.
You can begin to fill out your 2020 census form online now and get involved in the effort to support your community in filling theirs out, too. (The NAACP has also established this week as Black Census Week in an effort to support Black Americans and their communities in filling out their forms.) Because counting yourself in helps me, helps you, and helps your neighborhood. It’s easy and quick to do. And standing up and saying, “We exist!” is the first step in getting our voices heard and demands met.
Jennifer Edwards is the Senior Director of Digital Engagement and Democracy at Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Her focus is on finding innovative ways to activate Black communities online and increase voter participation on issues affecting Black people. Visit www.ourcount.org.