During the time between the 1990 and 2000 census, my family, like many other Caribbean families, moved to Jamaica, Queens and purchased a home in pursuit of our version of the American Dream. However, despite the arrival of many new families, resources and transportation access for my growing community didn’t come immediately to the area.
As such, the trip from my home in Jamaica, Queens to downtown Manhattan was over two hours. Even then, bus times were scattered and infrequent, and service was unreliable; it wasn’t unusual for a bus to simply not show up. We often resorted to taking “gypsy cabs” (unlicensed taxis) to connect us with other modes of transportation into Manhattan. As far as the city was concerned, our community was still invisible because we had not been counted.
As far as the city was concerned, our community was still invisible because we had not been counted.
When I returned to New York after college, following the 2000 census, I slowly began to notice the appearance of new bus routes, buses and transit resources in my neighborhood. It wasn’t until later in my career as an urban planner that I understood how those new buses and my newly shortened commute into lower Manhattan were a direct result of information coming in from the 2000 census. The increased transit access positioned me to take the risk of accepting a job in Manhattan, knowing that I now had a shorter and, importantly, more reliable commute.
My experience highlights just one of the many ways the census impacts our ability to effectively participate in our society. The census directs the flow of resources, can strengthen or erode our relative political power, and helps shape the reality of the places in which we live.
My personal story and career choices have taught me the power that the census holds. However, we can’t assume all of us living in America share that understanding. As we all well know, communities of color statistically remain the most disenfranchised population in this country. And there is, understandably, more anxiety than ever about this census. Many questions arise: Why does the government need information about our race and gender? What will the government do with this information? Can this information be used against me?
Only once every ten years do we have an opportunity like this one, to shift and lock in political power and representation for the next decade.
It’s critical that our communities know the facts about the upcoming census, and the power it can hold for our everyday lives. Especially in these racialized and trying times, it is more important now than ever to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that resources are rightfully and appropriately allocated to communities.
Census data informs the number of congressional districts that each state is allocated. Shifts in congressional districts set the foundation for the larger framework of how congressional power and representation is allocated. Periods of intense gerrymandering—the manipulation of district boundaries to maintain political advantage for one party—heightens the stakes of this process, because census data is relied on to draw and redraw districts. Only once every ten years do we have an opportunity like this one, to shift and lock in political power and representation for the next decade.
In addition to determining political representation, census data also drives how state and federal dollars will be allocated, where businesses will open new stores, and a host of other assets and resources in a community. An accurate count ensures that there is equity in the redistribution.
We know too well what lack of resourcing can do to community. We also know that communities of color are the most distressed population in this country, due to prejudice and structural racism. The legacies of redlining and other discriminatory public and private sector practices mean that historically, Black people in particular, but all communities of color, have often lived in neighborhoods with inadequate funding for basic needs like access to healthy food, healthcare, education, etc. And due in large part to such geographic isolation, poverty, and understandable fear and mistrust of government, these are the same communities that have historically been at risk of being undercounted. We cannot provide the government any more opportunities to discount or forget our communities.
A recent study by the Urban Institute estimates that the upcoming Census is likely to be the least accurate since 1990, and that among the people most likely overlooked are an estimated 1.7 million kids younger than five. The report asserts that “Black and Hispanic/Latinx-identified individuals in the high-risk scenario could be undercounted nationally by 3.68 percent and 3.57 percent, respectively.” What will that inaccuracy mean for those undercounted children when they enter the education system and beyond?
Community organizing and development is crucial in this moment. We have an opportunity now to mobilize to bring resources and attention into our communities. This mobilization could set the foundation for community engagement processes over the next decade, because the relationships, infrastructure and networks created to organize around the census can be used as assets for better community engagement practices in the future.
We have an opportunity now to mobilize to bring resources and attention into our communities.
The recent debate around whether to include a question about peoples’ citizenship in the census has shaken many, primarily our Latinx and immigrant community. Debunking the valid fears that many hold around this question is essential. We can each support this by sharing trusted information, and ensuring that your community is aware that personal information collected by the Census Bureau is federally protected by law and will not be shared with other government agencies.
Here are some resources to share:
It’s important to relay to these communities the power our census holds and how it will translate in their day-to-day lives. The data collected through the census bring visibility to communities. The census provides data and stories to back up how communities evolve, and inevitably aids in shaping the narrative of who communities are and who they are made up of. When entire communities are underrepresented, they do not receive their rightful political voice or fair share of funding. An accurate census is critical for making sure that these demographic shifts can translate into equitable transitions of political power.
Additional insights, support and input from Joanna Carrasco, Coordinator at Living Cities.