By Whitney Johnson

Resource investments and fair proportional political representation for historically marginalized communities are crucial to achieving health equity and decreasing the health, social, and economic disparities that act as barriers to equal opportunity. Alongside accurate representation in political and civic spheres, these investments can effectively improve the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. A full, fair and accurate census count is important to the proportioning of both financial resources and other capital as well as accurate proportional political representation (both in terms of number of electors and U.S. House of Representative seats). Organizations and institutions that depend on (and demand) a well-functioning democracy and have commitments to equity should understand the importance of the upcoming 2020 Census to their missions. This means that philanthropy, public health NGOs, and other community-based non-profits should be investing now in efforts to make sure that the census is appropriately and effectively funded and carried out.

What is the census?

The Constitution of the United States requires a decennial census (every 10 years) to determine congressional apportionment—the process by which seats to the U.S. House of Representatives are distributed among the states. Additionally much of federal funding to states and localities relies on census numbers to determine allocation amounts. Over $650 billion annually is allocated based on census data (either wholly or in part), with additional state and local municipalities determining additional funding allocations based on census data. This includes funding for community development, public health, education, transportation, and other services.[1] Additionally, census data is often used in important public health, economic, and demographic research and evaluation as a valuable means of articulating community and population-level impacts and change.

What is the problem? What is the risk?

The Census Bureau is currently underfunded and less prepared than it was for the 2010 census and is pursuing a “high-risk strategy” to focus on a largely internet-based format (versus door-to-door canvassing) in part to accommodate for resource constraints.[2] As a result of funding pressures, the agency has cancelled two field tests initially scheduled for April 2017, one in Puerto Rico and one covering two Indian reservations in Washington State (testing local attitudes towards responding as well as internet self-response implementation and use of tribal enrollment data among other new system processes); and removed two of the three locations for the “End-to-End” census test planned for April 2018. The Census Bureau also stopped plans for a Spanish language test census.[3] These are important markers for testing various aspects of census implementation and the ability for the planned census process to provide an accurate count of some hard-to-reach communities. The funding situation is dire enough that the next Economic Census (a separate survey of American business taken every 5 years) has been delayed because of Census Bureau funding issues, which is one among many federal agencies tasked with data gathering and analysis, struggling with decreased or flat funding and challenges to data collection. The 2017 High Risk Report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) ranked the 2020 census as a High Risk area for these issues and more, and pointing out that since 2014, only 6 of 30 GAO recommendations have been fully implemented.

The census has historically undercounted people in poverty, and racial and ethnic minorities, though efforts improved for the most recent 2000 and 2010 census.[4],[5] This is generally attributed to funding for door knocking and other local outreach strategies to gather data from hard to reach and marginalized communities. However, with budget cuts and subsequent changes to how census data is collected there are concerns that this positive trend will not continue, and that “in-office canvassing using government and commercial databases” will not effectively reach those in poverty, communities of color, immigrant, remote and rural populations. As reported in a recent CityLab article, experts already believe that underfunding and a leadership vacuum at the Bureau have stalled the agency’s partnership, outreach and communications program. Because the information the Census Bureau collects is so crucial to funding calculations and political representation, the risks of an underfunded census effort to an incomplete count are important for organizations and institutions that focus on democracy and equity to address now.

How to get involved?

So what can we do? There are forums that are already supporting education and partnerships to mobilize leaders in philanthropy to advocate on the issue of a full and accurate census including: the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation – Funders Census Initiative 2020, the Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup, and the United Philanthropy Forum. In addition to connecting to these platforms and the organizational funder groups investing in increased supports and policy improvements for the 2020 census, non-profit organizations, and other civic and health focused institutions can also do a lot to prepare for and help to amplify 2019 outreach and education efforts of the Census Bureau:

  • Build a basic level of understanding around the goals and implementation of the 2020 census within your organization, partner groups, and individuals in your networks of influence and/or care.
  • Partner with philanthropy, civic, and partner organizations to mobilize advocates for policy and funding improvements to the census.
  • Integrate census education alongside related program outreach efforts (e.g. health insurance navigation/signups, voting registration.
  • Encourage those in your networks and spheres of influence to complete their census questionnaires, especially those in historically undercounted communities.
  • Advocate with your members of Congress and ask for adequate funding and non-biased leadership for a fair and accurate 2020 census

What’s coming up?

At the end of this year, the Census Bureau will have finished the survey questions for 2020 and will be launching its program for sharing preliminary address lists and getting ready for more significant operations in 2018.[6] The “End-to-End Census Test” in Providence County, Rhode Island is still scheduled for April 2018 but will be without two of the originally scheduled locations in Pierce County, Washington and Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, West Virginia. This will be an important test of the new questionnaire and online data collection emphasis. In 2019 Census Bureau outreach will increase (including the hire of hundreds of thousands of temporary census employees), and census workers will begin to canvass communities that have been identified as having significant unstable housing or have otherwise experienced significant changes in order to update address lists for the 2020 count.

Thus there is still time to mobilize—for and monitor the implementation of—successful and fully funded 2020 census operations. However, the window of opportunity to make an impact on census efforts is quickly narrowing and all organizations and institutions that are stakeholders in a fair and well-represented democracy and accurately funded health and social services should be paying attention. An accurate account of those who make up the boundaries of the United States is important mechanism for creating more equitable investments, priorities, and opportunities for more democratic representation.

Whitney supports Healthy Gen and our partners’ investments in research, analysis, program and community infrastructure development efforts. Her super powers include research, writing, analysis, project & grant management, and program development. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the Yale School of Public Health.

[1] (last searched November 9, 2017)

[2] (last searched November 9, 2017)

[3] (last searched November 9, 2016)

[4] (last searched November 9, 2016)

[5] (last searched November 9, 2016)

[6] (last searched November 16, 2017)