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Capitolworks: Just the Facts... The 2020 census and why it matters more than you think

With all that is happening in Washington these days, it was easy to miss a smaller headline in yesterday’s news as it is assumingly unrelated to the more pressing issues. But in fact, the event that garnered this secondary headline is not unrelated to our government’s functioning—it just seems that way. This year is an important one; the decennial census is scheduled to kick-off later this spring in the lower 48 states, but the first official person for this round of US census was counted today in Alaska. While preparations and negotiations have been underway for months, these activities have not been visible to most of us. And yet, the importance of the census to all of us cannot be overstated. The results will impact all of our lives for the next decade and will determine how critical federal programs that we rely upon every day will be administered. Let us explain.

The Constitution mandates that every ten years, the federal government must count every living person in America. Additionally, responding to the census is required by law, and failure to do so could result in a significant fine. However, for all of these mandates, about three-quarters of households successfully mail back their responses. For the remaining 25 percent, the Census Bureau sends out a temporary worker to ask these questions in person, but with every census, there is a notable percentage of non-respondents. This is problematic for many reasons.

To begin, the primary purpose of the census is to determine states' political representation in Congress. The data collected by the decennial census determines the number of seats each state receives in the US House of Representatives, which has significant and long-term impacts at both the state and federal level. The fewer the people in your state, the less representation you will have at the federal level. If the citizens of your state fail to fulfill their requirement to complete the survey, then your state's voice will be diminished for the next decade- and that's a very long time.

Additionally, policymakers use the data to distribute an estimated $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars to localities based on population size. We all pay taxes for a variety of purposes including funding for our local schools, public services such as road maintenance and waste control, as well as social programs such as Headstart for our children. Taking all of this information into consideration, there is undoubtedly something of importance in there for each of us.

However, for all of its impact on essential programs and policies, the census is not without its own issues. For example, many policymakers and advocacy groups worry that specific communities, particularly in rural locales and low-income areas of color, might be undercounted. Of course, many factors could contribute to those living in these areas' inability to complete the census successfully. Still, whatever those factors may be, it could further disadvantage these often marginalized populations in their political representation and access to federally funded services.

Furthermore, this particular census has already drawn many critics and created significant controversies. This year, the census was set to include a question asking respondents whether or not they or their family members were citizens. Obviously, this is a question that sparked concern and confusion regarding its proposed purpose and ramifications. However, this past summer, the Supreme Court blocked the inclusion of the citizenship question, arguing that the Trump administration failed to provide adequate justification for its inclusion. This legal battle alone illustrates the high political stakes surrounding the 2020 census and the central role it plays in maintaining our democracy.

So, the take-home message is that the census is critically important to all of us, as individuals represented in Congress, as families and communities relying on public and social services and as a country in ensuring our democracy. Perhaps, now having a better understanding of the implications of the census, you will be more likely to participate and urge those around you to do the same.

Contributing Author: Saajid Hasan

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