Black folks are slow to invite you into their business. I mean … why? Who wants to know? Couple that with the complicated relationship we have with the U.S. government, and it’s no wonder why cities, local organizations and community leaders have been on the offensive for months, scrambling to settle nerves and educate the public about the upcoming census count.
The 2020 census is just up the street, and an accurate count is remarkably important. Census results help determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities. Detroit and Wayne County are home to large swaths of some of the most historically undercounted populations: African American moms, children under 5, immigrants, black males, seniors. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that upwards of 26,000 people living in Detroit weren’t counted in 2010.
That’s many millions of dollars of money lost over 10 years, funds that affect everything from safety net and child abuse prevention programs to highway planning and public transit systems. Census data also determines how many Congress seats each state gets. The House of Representatives’ 435 seats are divvied up based on the number of residents – states with higher pops get more representation.
The irony is that the sectors of our society least likely to be counted are the ones most in need of the funding and political voice that comes with an accurate census count. This one will be particularly tough. This is the first time the Census Bureau has instruction from Congress to prioritize cost over quality, according to reporting by Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting. This is the first time that census forms are able to be completed online. And we black and brown people, especially, are looking over our shoulders at an administration that’s tried to weaponize the census. Still we rise – and still we count.
Boots on the Ground
Meet the local people and orgs helping to spread the word.
Amber Lewis, Director of Digital and Social Media, City of Detroit
In true millennial fashion, Lewis has harnessed the power of social media and co-opted the influencer marketing formula, the bread-and-butter format that sells everything from handbags to lifestyles, to sell Detroit’s young people on the census.
“My goal is to use voices that don’t always necessarily interact with city government or you wouldn’t expect to hear from on city government to kind of connect with those hard-to-count populations – so, essentially, influencer marketing,” she says.
She and her team have flooded the city’s social media pages and YouTube channels with posts and videos featuring rappers Kash Doll and Icewear Vezzo – “He’s super passionate and excited about census and making sure we know that we count” – and they’ve commissioned art projects from KaCey Kal and the Whlgns (pronounced “hooligans”), which they offered for free.
Through February and into March, Lewis is partnering with event planners to coordinate special census sign-up events and social hours, hangouts with “happy hours vibes, but come learn about the census and why this matters to you.”
Warren Evans, Wayne County Executive
Wayne County faces a unique set of challenges in that the poverty rates are high and we’ve got a significant immigrant community; Dearborn is home to the largest population of Arab Americans in the U.S. And, of course, many of our Latino brothers and sisters call Detroit home, concentrated on the southwest side.
Ongoing deportation fears, stoked under Trump, will certainly play a role in this census. “This is not the best time in our world to trust government, anyway, so when you have those kinds of repressive tactics, it discourages people from wanting to participate and come forward,” Evans says.
For years, the county has been strengthening relationships with representatives of these hard-to-count communities to act as ambassadors, to connect to, galvanize and educate their neighbors. “If those people, who people in the community trust and believe in, are the ones making the ask to come forward, my sense is it’ll be more effective than otherwise.”
They’re also focusing on reaching seniors and parents with children under 5, who are hugely undercounted. Evans reminds that while it may feel unimportant to report that toddler, the census only comes around every decade. Results will determine access to resources that’ll affect things like education and health care as she grows.
Tameka Ramsey, Co-executive Director, Michigan Voices
State Voices is a network of nonpartisan coalitions working year-round to create a more accessible, inclusive and representative democracy – and, as head of the Michigan “table,” Ramsey works to promote civic engagement and uplift grassroots initatives, particularly those that benefit communities of color.
From Head Start to housing subsidies, these programs, the ones that can help us lift our people out of poverty and start to create generational wealth, live or die by the census count, she reminds. “We don’t always understand how making sure that we’re counted brings money to our communities that we can then use to help our families grow.”
They’ve been out since last summer, educating communities of color and debunking those “old wives’ tales.” She says, “We are aware that it takes people over seven times to get something, to hear it, to understand it – to move and act on it.” As the forms start to go out, they’ll set up in community centers, libraries and the like to walk people through filling out the census, focusing especially on the online forms.
“Older black women are 60% of the reason census forms are completed in the black community. They’re not always computer savvy, so we can have someone to help them.”
Local advocates and the Census Bureau bust myths about the 2020 census and put facts first.
“If you owe back taxes, child support or traffic violation fees, they’ll use census info to find and come after you!”
Wrong. The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code to keep your information confidential. The information you provide is protected from any other entities or government agencies – including law enforcement agencies – for 72 years.
“The census questionnaire will ask if you’re a U.S. citizen, so if you aren’t or if you’re undocumented, don’t respond or you could be deported!”
Not true. Despite Trump’s efforts, in June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled to continue to block the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The 2020 census forms will have no citizenship questions, and your information is protected from any immigration agencies.
“If the address on your ID or driver’s license is different from where you live currently, you can’t report for your current address!”
Wrong. It doesn’t matter what’s on your license. You should report for the household in which you live, eat and sleep as of April 1 – even if you’re just temporarily coach surfing.
“You can only fill out the census form online!”
Not true. The 2020 census questionnaire can be completed online, by phone or by mail. Online and phone responses can be given in 13 languages including Spanish, Arabic, Haitian Creole and Chinese.
“Census takers will ask for money or financial identifiers like your Social Security number!”
Wrong. The Census Bureau will never ask you for your Social Security number, money or donations, anything on behalf of a political party, or your bank account or credit card numbers. If anyone contacts you asking for any of these things, they’re a scammer and you should not cooperate.
“If you live in Section 8 housing and report people living in your home who aren’t supposed to be, like a boyfriend or a brother, you may lose your subsidies or be evicted!”
Not true. Again, The Census Bureau is barred by law from sharing data with any other government agencies or entities, including landlords.
Save the Dates
Important 2020 census timeline info
Households will begin receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 census online, by phone or by mail.
March 20-April 1:
The bureau will count people who are experiencing homelessness by visiting shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans, the streets and non-sheltered outdoor locations like tent cities.
Census Day is observed nationwide. By this date, every home will have received an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. You should respond for your home online, by phone or by mail, and you’ll tell the bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020.
Census takers will begin visiting on-campus college students, people living in senior centers and others among large groups of people. Census takers will also start conducting quality-check interviews to help ensure an accurate count.
Census takers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to the 2020 census to help make sure everyone is counted.
The Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts to the president and Congress.
For more information on the 2020 census, visit 2020census.gov.