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Influencing Policy into 2032: Preparing Campuses and Students to Respond to the 2020 Census

October 25, 2018 Teri Lyn Hinds Director of Policy Research & Advocacy

In an era of ubiquitous data and data collection, the notion of completing an official count of every person in the United States every ten years may seem outdated. The Census, however, is a vital component in the foundation of our national government. Understanding the importance of the Census and the role it plays in ensuring the health of our representative democracy is essential as we head into the final year of preparation for the 2020 Census. This post provides a brief history of the Census and how it relates to the United States House of Representatives and the distribution of federal funds before addressing how student affairs professionals can help ensure all members of the campus communities are counted in 2020.

Role of the Census in Today’s Federal Government

As described in our post from May, the decennial national Census is stipulated in Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, as amended by the Fourteenth Amendment. It links the number of all people[1] within a state directly to the number or representatives allotted that state in the House of Representatives. Following each decennial Census, representatives are apportioned to the states on the basis of their population counts from the most recent Census. States may gain (e.g. Nevada gained one seat following the 2010 Census) or lose (e.g., Louisiana lost one seat following the 2010 Census) seats in the House of Representatives due to shifts in population between states, but every state is guaranteed at least one Representative. Because re-apportionment of state representatives is only mandated following a decennial Census, changes made following the 2020 Census will influence national and state policy into at least 2032, and possibly beyond.

Census data are also used to allocate billions of dollars in federal funding to states and municipalities – nearly $600 billion in FY2015 distributed across 16 programs supporting children from low-income families, federal highways, and Medicaid. In addition to these federal and state allocations, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that Census data are also frequently used by businesses to determine where to open new locations and by counties when considering school closures. Census data are also helping colleges and universities provide better information about the employment outcomes for students by major through the Post-secondary Employment Outcomes (PSEO) project. Because the Census is the only time every resident of the United States is counted and the data are available only every 10 years, each decennial Census influences how political power and money is apportioned in states for a decade, until the next Census is completed.

Concerns for an Undercount in the 2020 Census

Counting every person across a country as geographically large and diverse as the United States is daunting under the best of circumstances. Avoiding differential undercounts, e.g., missing a large proportion of children, people of color, rural residents, and low-income or homeless individuals, has long been a challenge that the US Census Bureau takes proactive steps to counter. Current political circumstances, specifically with respect to the inclusion of a question on the Census about citizenship and on-going concerns about personal data use by the federal government, exacerbate the challenges.

The citizenship question has been particularly fraught due to claims that the addition stems from partisan motivation to intentionally skew the distribution of funds and political power away from areas with substantial foreign-born populations. A central facet of the controversy is a belief that Republicans connected to the White House are intentionally trying to suppress voters that tend to vote for Democrat Party candidates. Dozens of states and cities filed a lawsuit earlier this year to prevent the inclusion of the citizenship question and trial in the case is set to start November 5, 2018. Earlier in October, the Supreme Court blocked orders from a lower court that would have required Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Justice Department official John Gore to provide depositions under oath for the case. Despite efforts to stop the case, which is scheduled to begin trial on November 5, 2018, from progressing, a federal judge ruled this week that the case will proceed as scheduled.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), advocates for low-income people, submitted comments on the proposed addition of the citizenship question in August 2017. CLASP strongly opposes the question, citing data from focus groups they held in six states between May and November 2017 that led them to conclude that “countless numbers of immigrants will choose not to participate in the Census for fear that their personal information and immigration status would not remain confidential and would be used against them or members of their families.” These concerns are shared by many experts and persist despite federal protections preventing sharing of Census data with anyone, including law enforcement or other branches of the federal government.

The citizenship question is not the only undercount threat the upcoming 2020 Census faces. The 2020 Census will be the first to allow individuals to respond online, introducing fears that the digital divide in our country will introduce or exacerbate differential undercounts between urban and rural areas, and low-income or homeless individuals. On-going concerns about the cost estimates submitted by the Census Bureau, which are substantially higher than in previous years, compounded with incomplete schedules that include estimate of labor and equipment needed to complete the Census add to the undercount concerns.

Student Affairs and the Census

Community actors, including colleges and universities, are important partners that can help explain the importance of the Census, encourage all people to complete their Census forms, and counter possible undercounts in the Census. Higher education professionals and institutions can help by sharing accurate information about the 2020 Census within their communities, spreading the word about jobs available with the 2020 Census, and by learning more about becoming an official partner through The Census Bureau’s Integrated Partnership and Communications (IPC) program. 

The Census Bureau has created a Community Outreach Toolkit to help community partners learn about the Census, identify common barriers to participation, and encourage all people in their community to be counted. Campus leaders can work within their state or communities to form or participate in a State Complete Count Commission or a Complete Count Committee to encourage participation in your community. Working with other partners in your communities can help send consistent and repeated messages to community members dispelling fears and encouraging participation in the Census. The Census Project has developed a toolkit to help community organizers create coalitions to promote a fair and accurate Census. Reviewing these tools can help student affairs professionals and institutions understand and explain the importance of the Census for their campus and broader communities.

Image Credit: This image or file is a work of a United States Census Bureau employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, 10/25/2018.


[1] The Census is charged with counting every person within each state, not just those who are considered US Citizens.