Census 2020: We are all equal, but are some more equal than others?

(from a phrase in Animal Farm, by George Orwell)


Let’s Count Together

Once again, we, the inhabitants of the United States, are going to be counted. The government assigns an extraordinary amount of resources to make sure the census officers reach even the most remote places. Officially, Census 2020 began this past January 21 by counting people who live in any of the most isolated 220 Alaskan villages and communities. Following tradition, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham personally numbered the first home of this year’s exercise. It took place in Toksook Bay, a rural Alaskan town on the Bering Sea1.

In the rest of the country, including the fifty states, the District of Columbia and the five US territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands), starting on March 12, people will receive information about how to respond to the census online, by phone, or by mail. By April 1, Census Day, every home will receive an invitation to participate in the counting. During the month of April, students living on campuses, people living in senior centers, etc., will be counted by census officers. From May to July, officers will visit homes that haven’t returned their census forms. In December, the census bureau will announce the final results, and on March 31, 2021, the bureau will send redistricting counts to the states. This information might be used to redraw legislative districts based on population changes2.

Because counting people is not an easy task, the census takes into consideration the exceptional circumstances in which people need to be counted. These include visitors; US military personnel; people who are born or who move on Census Day; people in shelter, correctional or health care facilities, or living in RV parks, hotels or other transitory locations; and those displaced by natural disasters.

According to the official website of Census 20203, every person living in the US territory will be accounted for.

But among the Hispanic population, especially those who don’t have documents, a concerning question has arisen that relates to safety and identity protection. Therefore, there is a certain reluctance about being counted. We are talking about people who nowadays are so frightened that in many cases they do not leave their homes. And most likely, they will not voluntarily give any information about their households to a government entity because they will be afraid of the consequences of providing such details and ending up being deported from the United States.

Erich Luepke, census recruitment assistant, explains to us how the bureau has a few means to make sure specific segments are counted.

“The first and most important is to encourage people to fill out the forms on their own; the 2020 census offers mail-in, online, and telephone options. To do this at the local level, the census bureau forms partnerships with local governments and NGOs. When I say local, I mean these are organizations that serve a specific village, town, or city. These partnerships build trust with people, they inform everyone about what the census does, and they give the census a channel to distribute information to people who otherwise don’t know about the census. We think these partnerships seek us out and work with us because they understand that the benefits of counting everyone outweigh the risks to the people they serve. At least, that’s why I work for the census.”

The second approach that the census uses to make sure everyone is counted is by hiring people from within the local communities—people who know the particularities of their own neighborhoods, speak the same language, and are known and trusted.

“I spoke with someone while I was recruiting, and he said he only answered the door to a census taker because he recognized him, and then he filled out his form. That’s the kind of reach we are looking for. If someone looks like they are from out of town, people don’t want to answer the door to them. It also sends the message that the census can be trusted, because maybe your friend, neighbor, or member of your church works for them. We’re hiring a half million people across the country, and it’s our goal to make sure they represent the people they are counting,” adds Luepke.

He goes on explaining that the final method used to ensure specific communities get counted are the census takers: “They will make up the largest portion of the half-million employees the census will have at peak operations. Census takers are the last resort in terms of getting census responses. These census takers are hired to work in and around the communities they live in. They can be identified by their blue vest, census ID/lanyard, and official census device. Notably, they will never carry a weapon and are not allowed to use a camera either. It is against the law to impersonate a census taker.”

History of a Troubling Question

To avoid undocumented citizens being left out of Census 2020, the bureau will not include any question about citizenship. In reality, such a question would not distinguish between who is in the country legally and who is not. Many people living in the U S are not citizens, but they have some authorization to do so: permanent residents, students, and workers with special visas, for instance.

Let us remember that from 1820 to 1950, the census always included questions about a person’s citizenship or place of birth. Between 1960 and 2000, such questions were asked only to a fraction of the population on an alternative long-form questionnaire. In 2010, the citizenship question was moved from the census to the American Community Survey, which is sent each year to a small sample of households.

In March 2018, nevertheless, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross intended to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census at the request of the Department of Justice. The Supreme Court ruled against that, and despite President Trump’s efforts to include such a question, it has not been included.

According to the Supreme Court of the United States public document No. 18-9664, “the census bureau and former bureau officials have resisted occasional proposals to resume asking a citizenship question of everyone, on the ground that doing so would discourage noncitizens from responding to the census and lead to a less accurate count of the total population.”

One of the questions the census will ask is whether the persons in the household are Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish origin.

Being counted is essential. Census population was established in 1790; according to Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution, every ten years, the US population has to be counted. This year will mark the 24th census in our history. The information that the census provides is critical for lawmakers, school districts, business owners, hospitals, fire and police departments, etc. It facilitates the right allocation of national resources and funding, and even the number of representatives that each state will be allowed to have in the House of Representatives, and the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts. The demographic information provided by the census is also used to compute federal grant-in-aid benefits, drafting of legislation, urban and regional planning, business planning, and academic and social studies.

Some facts to keep in mind: of Cleveland’s 383,793 inhabitants, 11.2% are Latino and Hispanic. This number does not take into consideration other areas where typically more people from Hispanic descent reside5, such as Lorain (population of 63,773; 30% Hispanic or Latino) and Painesville (population of 19,881; 27.9% Hispanic or Latino), to name just two of them. At the state level, out of an estimated 11,689,100 persons, Latinos and Hispanics constitute 3.9%6.

Safety of the Information of Undocumented People

Hispanic people have reasons to be hesitant about the 2020 census. The last months have seen escalated harassment against this specific segment of the population: verbal and physical aggression, detentions, deportations, and incarcerations. We asked Erich Luepke how the census can protect the identity of the people, not only Latinos and Hispanics.

“We are trained to be vigilant in terms of keeping any information we collect confidential. Anything that might be used to identify a specific person is called Personal Identifiable Information, or PII. That could be someone’s name. It could also be just their first name, birthday, and zip code. Census employees are expressly forbidden from sharing this information with anyone per census policy, unless that person needs to know for the purposes of conducting the census. Every employee, including myself, is sworn for life to protect this PII. So if you’re talking about on-the-ground employees trying to pass on this information, it’s pretty difficult because they don’t give you access to it, and if you try, you’ll be fired,” he explains.

And Luepke adds: “It’s also a federal crime for this information to be shared with anyone, including other government agencies, under Title 13. The penalty is up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. This specific law dates back to 1952, and for this law to be changed, it would have to pass both houses of Congress. This law was passed partly in response to the use of census information to target Japanese Americans during World War II—and it ensures that this sort of injustice does not happen again.”

Using Art to Empower People

In this context, the Creative Fusion program, put in place by the Cleveland Foundation a few years ago, will be devoted this year to the census, and to making sure that people understand why it is so important to be counted. Using different artistic manifestations—from painting to writing, from theater to music—Creative Fusion will aim to reach out to the Hispanic and Latino communities in Cleveland. The goal is not only to spread the message about the importance of the census, but mainly to engage them in a necessary dialogue about this and many other critical issues for such neighborhoods.

The theme of the Creative Fusion program this year is precisely Contar/Count. Michael Gill explains in more detail many of the activities planned by different organizations as part of this program.


To read this article in Spanish, please click here.