This Fourth of July should be about more than family barbecues and fireworks. There’s another tradition that carries far more weight, so much so that it’s rooted in the very foundation of our democracy – the U.S. census.
But Congress refuses to fully fund the 2020 count, and the Census Bureau’s top leadership post is in flux. That’s why we’re particularly thankful the state budget approved by legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown includes an initial $3 million toward 2020 Census outreach.
We have to demand an accurate count. The data from the census will affect our lives for the next 10 years and beyond, and as the most populous state, California has the most to lose.
At its core, the census is about power and money. The count is used to reapportion the 435 U.S. House seats; states with growing populations could win seats. In 2010, when California did not invest in census outreach, our state didn’t gain a single seat for the first time in 90 years.
The population count is also used to divide nearly $400 billion in federal, state and local services and programs – child and maternal health services, school meals, housing and more. For every person counted, their local community and state receives $1,600 in federal dollars. Communities can miss out on millions of dollars.
With California’s size and geography, there are multiple ways a faulty count could hurt us. Communities of color and rural areas have traditionally been undercounted. Inadequate funding and fewer fieldworkers – as the Census Bureau has proposed – means it will be harder to reach these communities, already less inclined to participate given the anti-immigrant climate in Washington.
There are some steps that California can take to prepare for 2020. First, we must empower nonprofits, community organizations and service providers to get involved. Investing in a ground game that mobilizes people to “get out the count” will be key.
Second, we must keep our elected officials engaged. It isn’t the sexiest issue, but members of Congress should adequately fund the census, and where they fail, state legislators should continue to step in.
Third, we can all do our part to demystify the census. Every 10 years, there’s confusion why the government is asking seemingly awkward questions, especially for those who receive the long-form questionnaire. The more people know the importance of the census and understand its origins, the more likely they are to participate.
In California, we know how to respond when our nation’s values and traditions are under attack. We need to honor the great tradition of the census and make sure it is done right.
Daniel Zingale is senior vice president at The California Endowment. He can be contacted at DZingale@calendow.org.