August 10, 2019

With congressional seats at stake, officials detail big push for census participation

Census officials and advocates for immigrant populations, communities of color and the homeless are launching unprecedented efforts to spur participation in the 2020 census, they said at an Aug. 9 panel discussion at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Fears are widespread that the recent controversy of the failed legal battle to place a question on citizenship on the census form will depress the count, particularly among immigrant communities, while general distrust of government and confusion about the census among U.S. residents of all incomes and political stripes could make the situation even worse, panelists predicted.

Panel moderator, NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang, said the census is about “power and money,” including the almost $900 billion a year in federal funding and legislative representation that is allocated based on results of the once-every-decade census. The point is to count everyone in the U.S., he said, “easy to say…really hard to do.”

To get as close as possible to that full count, Census Associate Director for Field Operations Timothy Olson detailed the efforts already underway by his agency. That includes, for the first time, allowing respondents to fill out the form online and over the phone. Previously, he said, only paper forms were used, and phone calls were limited to answering the public’s questions.

Olson laid out the process, saying all U.S. households will get six different mailings, from late April to early July. The customary follow-ups with non-respondents will be extensive, he said. The forms will be available in multiple languages. Research shows that the biggest challenge to a full count is that the public is “not aware of the census and the impact it has on their daily lives,” Olson said.

It is the largest mobilization of the federal government in peace time. Results of the census are due no later than Dec. 31, 2020, he said.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, a Latino civil rights organization, said the 2020 census had become controversial even before the citizenship question cropped up, and blamed the Trump administration for the atmosphere of fear among some communities about filling out the form. He traced the complex history of the lawsuits that followed the administration’s decision to put the question on the census form, culminating in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the question violated the Administrative Procedures Act.

“Census 2020: Litigation, Data Confidentiality and Getting Out the Count” was sponsored by the ABA Center for Public Interest Law as well as by the ABA Commission on ImmigrationSection of Civil Rights and Social JusticeStanding Committee on Election Law and Commission on Homelessness & Poverty.

Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he leads the center’s census project, laid out the bulwark of federal laws, case law and policies that protect individual responses from being shared with other government agencies, including law enforcement. But advocates on the panel suggested the atmosphere of fear has created distrust that the law will not be followed.

Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of the census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), said that certain communities are often undercounted, including communities of color, immigrant communities, children under 5, people with disabilities and the homeless. That means these communities “consistently get less resources and less political power, less visibility,” she said.  

“We recognize there is a huge educational gap that must be addressed,” she said. “There is a lot we need to unpack and address over the next 18 months.”

Minnis pointed out that lawyers, who are often more trusted members of their communities, will play a valuable role in addressing the confusion, fear and mistrust. She appealed to them to work with their communities to get the word out that filling out the census forms are critical.

A particularly difficult population to reach is the homeless because of mental illness as well as mistrust of authorities, said Leslie Schweinle Ginzel, program director at Beacon Law, a legal advocacy group for the homeless in the Houston area. She said there is also confusion over who to include when families fill out the forms. If a homeless family moves into the apartment of another family, they are counted as a “household” for the purposes of the census, she said. Plus, families in crisis may place filling out a form as a low priority.

To reach the scattered homeless living in obscure places in the Houston area, such as under bridges and in the woods, homeless-services workers will work side by side with census workers and the homeless themselves to seek them out, she said. In Harris County, she noted, even a 1 percent undercount will equate to $11 billion lost to the community over the next 10 years. “That’s the money to serve these populations.”