The biggest threat to a complete count in the 2020 Census, civil rights advocates agree, is public distrust of the government, fueled by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, and the just announced decision by Commerce Dept. Secretary Wilbur Ross to include a question on citizenship status — a question that hasn’t been included since 1950. 

Advocates from America’s diverse communities held a national press briefing to educate ethnic media about the 2020 Census count and just what is at stake. 

Speakers were Arturo Vargas, executive director, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, John Yang, president and executive director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL), and Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 

They outlined inclusiveness of the count, adequate funding concerns, ramifications of an incomplete count, and the impact of an additional question on citizenship. Advocates say the question could have a chilling effect on a complete count. 

Data collected is used to determine how Congressional seats are set and informs decisions about the allocations of funding to support state and local communities’ resources, like schools, hospitals, education, and transportation, explained Gupta. 

The session came as Congress nears approval of the questionnaire and budget for fiscal year 2019.  

“Put simply, the Census is foundational to our democracy.  It is one of the most significant civil rights issues facing the country today and in fact we must ensure that the 2020 Census is a fair and accurate count,” said Gupta. 

Another factor putting that at risk is chronic underfunding for fiscal year 2019, she added. 

Advocates say the citizenship question has created significant alarm among the civil and human rights community.  The underfunding has meant delayed preparation and outreach, which will mean an inaccurate count, they say. 

As congress begins the process of budgeting funding for the census many locally are as equally concerned as those in our nations capital.  ‘Everything is at risk if African Americans in L.A. are under counted in the 2020 census.  We stand to lose our great Congresswoman and our share of $600 billion in funding for healthcare and education.  Each of us is worth $1,950 per person each year over 10 years in federal funding.  These are real dollars for real services and that’s real talk” stated Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer who is a member of the Assembly Select Committee on the Census.  

The citizenship question is unwise, untimely, and an expensive decision, said Vargas.  His organization and partners are calling for Congressional oversight hearings, and for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to meet with Ross to determine the basis for his decision to add the question. 

Historically, the Black population has been undercounted since the first Census in 1790, when enslaved Africans were counted as three-fifths of a person, said Morial.   

“The prospect of an epic undercount of African Americans and all people of color in the 2020 Census is becoming more of a reality each day,” Morial stated. 

“In 2010, African Americans were undercounted by more than two percent; African American children by an astonishing 6.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s own statistics, Whites, however, were over counted by 1.1 percent in 2000 and nearly one percent in 2010,” Morial stated. 

He added, “Underrepresentation and a Black undercount is an insidious form of racial discrimination, because it denies an entire swath of the American population access to privileges, protections and rights.  The same is true for all people who may be undercounted in this Census.” 

Resources in housing, voting, employment and education are all at stake, Morial and the other advocates said.  To add insult to injury, the Census Bureau will continue its policy of prison-based gerrymandering by counting nearly two million incarcerated persons as residents of the jurisdictions of their prisons, rather than their homes, said Morial. 

He urges Blacks to participate in the count to ensure they get their fair share of federal funding and distribution of legislative, Congressional, and judicial seats. 

Generally, given the historical skepticism of the Census data gathering and reluctance by some in the Black community to participate, Morial said more education about the process is necessary. 

“By not participating in it, we shortchange ourselves.  By not participating in it, we disempower ourselves.  We have to understand it’s not a count for the sake of a count,” said Morial in a follow-up phone interview.