Don’t count yourself out: Why every Ohio household needs to respond to the 2020 Census

So what’s it worth to you to fill out the 2020 U.S. Census form?

Would you take, say, $2,750 a year?

That’s how much money per person the state of Ohio received from the federal government last year, largely based on the state’s census results. What’s more, cities in Ohio with greater population and greater need receive more of those funds, which totaled more than $50 billion for fiscal year 2018-2019, according to data from Policy Matters Ohio.

Results from the 2020 Census will determine how $675 billion in federal and state funds are distributed throughout the nation for the coming decade. That money goes to schools, hospitals, fire departments, hospitals, senior centers, roads and bridges, and many other community services and projects, based on populations they serve.

Federal funding isn’t the only part of our lives affected by the census, a massive effort mandated by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years. Census results also carry political clout. They determine how many representatives Ohio will have to voice its views in the U.S. House of Representatives and how many electoral college votes it will cast in deciding the nation’s president. What’s more, local counts are used to help draw the state’s legislative district lines.

It’s no wonder then that many communities in Ohio have plans of their own to boost awareness of the census count this year. Nor is it surprising that controversy surrounds how the U.S. Census Bureau will conduct its count in 2020, how much funding it will receive for the effort, and what questions will be asked.

First and foremost, the Census Bureau will attempt to ask every household in America where its members were residing on a particular day — April 1, 2020 — known as Census Day. Households that fail to respond to the survey — online, by phone, or by mail — will be visited personally by “enumerators” beginning in May of 2020. (To learn more about how the census will work and its timeline, see the sidebar.)

Earlier this year, the Trump administration had planned to include a citizenship question on the census form, raising concerns that it would keep many of the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants from responding for fear of being deported. In a divided decision in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against including the question, primarily because the court didn’t believe the Trump administration’s argument that the question was aimed at better counting minority voters and enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

The issue appears to be dead, at least for this year’s census, but the publicity surrounding the question may already have had a chilling effect on the immigrant community, says Roland Anglin, professor of political science and dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

“Even if the question is not asked, the whole venture of the census may now be handicapped because people are fearful,” he says.

Immigration has worked to Ohio’s advantage in the census, Anglin says. Without the influx of immigrants into the state, both documented and undocumented, Ohio would likely lose population in the 2020 Census as well as the funding and representation that goes with it.

Census officials estimate that Ohio would have lost about 12,700 people since 2010 without international migration. But with immigrants, the state has added more than 152,000 people so far this decade. Even so, because of faster growth in other states, particularly in the Sun Belt, Ohio is likely to lose one of its 16 congressional seats after the 2020 Census.

Anglin says demographic researchers estimate that 3% of Latinos and more than 3% of African-Americans are traditionally undercounted in the census. That’s because many of them live in poverty, are less educated and aware of the census, and move frequently from household to household, or have no home at all, he says.

The undercount especially hurts “cities with high concentrations of poverty,” including Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, Anglin says. In particular, it’s the children of the urban poor who suffer most from undercounting, says John Casterline, director of the Institute for Population Research at Ohio State University.

“They disproportionately have more children and they tend to be under-represented (in the census),” he says. “For the various programs targeted at children, you would like to know where they’re located.”

To get a better count among their populations, cities and counties around Ohio have been collaborating with the Census Bureau through “Complete Count” committees of local community and business leaders. Since spring, the committees have been devising ways to raise awareness of the census and to help the bureau locate people in undercounted neighborhoods. Along with their local governments, community-based organizations, faith-based groups, schools, businesses, the media, and others will play a key role in educating and motivating residents to participate in the 2020 Census.

In Cincinnati, the Complete Count Committee is devising strategies to use television, social media, and websites to stress the importance of being counted. Columbus is likewise planning a media blitz as well as a speakers bureau to engage community members directly.

The Census Bureau “is really relying on cities and counties like us more than ever because they’re underfunded,” says Doug D. Murray, director of community outreach for the Columbus mayor’s office.

The Census Bureau will need all the help it can get to offset a slow start in planning and testing for the 2020 Census due to funding cuts, Anglin and Casterline say. The bureau typically receives 20% to 30% less funding than it asks from Congress, Casterline says.

But the funding shortfall this time around is especially concerning because the bureau will be using online forms for the first time — a method more prone to undercount the elderly and poor who don’t have access to the internet, Anglin and Casterline warn. The bureau had only enough funds to do limited testing of the online forms in one location — Providence, Rhode Island — rather than the three cities it had originally planned for.

Congress in 2012 ordered the Census Bureau not to exceed the $12.3 billion for the 2010 Census, but each census has been more costly than the previous one. The 2020 Census is expected to cost $15.6 billion in total. And while Congress changed its mind and increased census funding for 2018 and 2019, demographers fear damage has already been done.

The lack of online testing has increased the risk of cyberattacks and a breach in the bureau’s data protection. An audit by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the bureau’s new cloud method of data storage was not secure, and its vulnerability to hackers could be “potentially catastrophic.”

Two groups in the state of New York filed a federal lawsuit last month against the Trump administration, accusing it of starving the Census Bureau of money needed to avoid an undercount of racial and ethnic minorities in the 2020 Census. The Brooklyn-based nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy Action and the city of Newburgh, New York accused the government of “arbitrarily, capriciously, and irrationally” slashing resources to count blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the homeless, and other members of “hard-to-count” communities.

The suit is aimed at blocking decisions by the Census Bureau to hire one-third as many enumerators, cut in half the number of census field offices, and reduce community outreach efforts. Instead, the bureau plans to rely on new technologies to make up for the reduction in staffing, including its online presence and the use of social media, smart phones, and geolocating devices.

But the bottom line, Anglin says, is that the Census Bureau for the 2020 count “is being asked to do more with less.”

Census data collection “shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” says Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. “It’s important for us to get the full count in order to get the full array of benefits for the state of Ohio. The U.S. Constitution is very clear on this. It calls for a ‘full enumeration’ of everyone in the United States.”


Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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