The 2020 Census, Hard-to-Count Communities and the Virus that Threatens it All
Coronavirus and the Census
As Colorado Common Cause gathered for our Census Kickoff party on March 12th, I kept thinking back to the email that I had received earlier in the day from Brian Ewert, Superintendent of Littleton Public Schools, informing us that the decision had been made to cancel school for two weeks due to Coronavirus.
The decision to simply cancel school for a couple of weeks instead of shifting to an online learning model was because the district was not able to provide equitable access to an online platform. At the time, we expected that this shutdown would last only a few weeks, and one of those two weeks was an already scheduled break from school. The disruption to the students seemed minimal. A significant part of their decision to simply cancel school was due to the high number of students in our district who live below the poverty line and their only access to the Internet is either at school or at the library, which had also just announced its temporary closure. There are also a number of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) and those who English is a second language and/or not the primary language spoken at home.
Another reason was simply due to availability of equipment. For the middle and high schools, there is a 1:1 correlation between the distribution of district-issued Chromebooks, but at the elementary level, this is not the case. Students share equipment at the elementary level at varying ratios, depending on where the school is located (translation: how wealthy the PTO is). They simply could not ensure that there was access to a Chromebook or laptop for every student in the district. LPS needed to buy more time to figure out how to address the needs of their student population so that they could begin to offer online learning as an option.
Our school district was not alone; in fact, most of the school districts across the state of Colorado were struggling to address the needs of their students and access to resources was among the top concerns. Education is only one area where weaknesses in our system have been exposed by Coronavirus. Access to healthcare, gender inequities, and working families have all seen a spotlight on their shortcomings—the same way the 2020 Census is now threatened.
As Denver Mayor Michael Hancock talked at our event about how important it is to be counted in the Census, thoughts of these families already being left behind kept swirling in my mind. The 2020 Census marks the first time you can fill out a Census survey online, and yet all I could think about is that for the families in my immediate community, if they couldn’t get online to do schoolwork, how could they be expected to get online and be counted? If they aren’t counted, then how do we ensure that their needs will be represented for the next ten years? This ripple effect would pose a challenge for communities that are already hard-to-count in normal times, but could become impossible to count in the era of COVID-19.
The New York Times published an article about how Coronavirus will play a role in seeing households undercounted in the Census this year. In 2019, states fought hard to secure budgets that would allow them to adequately count their populations—through awareness campaigns, hiring Census takers, and to fund the infrastructure that would make it all happen. In Colorado, $6 million was awarded to non-profit organizations statewide for Census budgets. While that seems like a lot of money, it is still far less than what we need for a nationwide constitutionally mandated work—at a time when even the largest businesses are struggling to adapt to the transition from in-person to online events, we need to be creative, especially when many of the in-person promotional events suddenly had to be re-tooled not only to be online, but to be something attractive enough that people would want to attend in a time of crisis.
The latter of that becomes even more challenging when you’re looking more deeply at the hard-to-count demographics. Coronavirus disrupted us all, but if you’re a household that is already displaced by a disaster, unlikely to have Internet access, or you’re a renter who doesn’t speak English well, your first thought is likely not going to be about making sure you get your Census survey completed. In fact, the Census probably isn’t even in your sphere of urgency right now. Your attention is directed at feeding your family and simply surviving day-to-day (and hoping to find toilet paper when you need it). Coronavirus was a gut-punch to an already ill-prepared plan.
Although the Trump administration’s battle to add a citizenship question to the survey was ultimately defeated, the prolonged debate has already confused people about what to expect on the Census, and how safe it is to fill out. Common Cause and other entities are working tirelessly to repair this damage, but how do we capture the attention of these communities in the middle of a pandemic? As of 2018, nearly 17% of the workforce was made up of foreign-born workers, and they are more likely to be employed in service occupations , meaning that many of these people are essential workers. They are fighting for our lives while risking theirs, and Census is the last thing on their minds right now.
Even for those who have been fortunate enough to continue working from home through the shutdown, distractions of helping kids with schoolwork, stressing about elderly parents, or keeping abreast of the news makes it hard to tune in to web events that don’t seem vital, and the Census easily falls onto that list.I have heard so many stories of people in my community spending their time trying to file for unemployment benefits or small business loans on a daily basis. With those programs log-jammed for so many people,trusting yet another government website to collect your Census data becomes less and less plausible.
Coronavirus has unabashedly exposed many flaws in our system and highlights the need for community resources, and in hard-to-count communities just like any other, we need to fight for funding for our hospitals and school system. Our world is in an unprecedented moment, and history will judge us for how we took care of our most vulnerable right now, so roll up your sleeves, show some solidarity, and fill out your Census at my2020census.gov, because you owe it to your community to secure the necessary funding for the services and infrastructure we all rely on every day.