By T. A. Hendrickson
At a recent rally downtown in Los Angeles to urge everyone to be counted in the 2020 census, city and county officials did not mince words: The obstacles to participation in the census are high, they said. But failure to get a full and accurate count would be devastating, financially and politically.
It’s a message that Northeast L.A. needs to take to heart. Even in the best of times, the communities of L.A. County have ranked as the hardest-to-count in the nation because of their diverse populations of renters, immigrants, non-English speakers and homeless people.
And these are not the best of times. In June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of a last-minute move by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. All available research show that adding a citizenship question is likely to sow fear among immigrants, reducing participation in the census and causing an undercount.
An undercount, in turn, would be crippling for L.A. The census determines how much federal tax revenue flows to states and localities. Each person who is counted in the census works out to about $2,000 in federal funding, so an undercount could add up to the loss of billions of dollars for transportation, education, health, housing, environmental protection and other programs that directly affect the quality of life. “We’re talking about a lot of money,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents Northeast L.A. and headlined the kickoff census rally last month. “We’re talking about vital services.”
The census also determines the number of seats in Congress for each state, so an undercount would mean the loss of political power to influence the national agenda. That would be the start of a downward spiral. If people do not participate in the census because they fear an anti-immigrant backlash, the resulting undercount would reduce the financial and political power that is needed to resist anti-immigrant policies.
The census even affects who becomes President of the United States, because it is used to determine the number of seats in the Electoral College. As recent history has shown, the Electoral College can deliver the presidency to a candidate who loses the popular vote.
According to local government officials, the key to getting everyone counted in 2020 is to mobilize community-based organizations. To that end, several groups have committed resources to census outreach and education and several have received state and local grants to help them in their work. Prominent among them are the NALEO Education Fund (NALEO stands for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials), CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in L.A.), the Advancement Project California, a multiracial civil rights organization, and the Education Fund of California Calls, a grassroots alliance to engage young voters in the political process.
But outreach needs to be a two-way street, with local groups – neighborhood councils, churches, arts collectives, PTAs, sports clubs, business improvement districts and others – contacting and coordinating with groups in the vanguard of census organizing.
“We would ask potential partners to embed census content into the work the organizations already do,” said Giovany Hernandez, the Regional Census Campaign Manager for the NALEO Educational Fund.
That could be as simple as handing out census information at regular public events. Or it could be a deeper level of involvement, such as receiving training to help people fill out their census forms online.
The Constitution of the United States requires a census every 10 years to count everyone who is in the country. In a very real sense, when you stand up for a full and accurate count, you are standing up for democracy.