by Staff Writer Raynell Joseph
Since 1790, the U.S. government has counted its population every 10 years through what’s known as the Census. It counts the population in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories. The Decennial Census is said to be the most inclusive activity in our country and is considered essential to our democracy. Black communities across the U.S. have historically been undercounted in the Census, with poverty and housing insecurity being among the top reasons why African-Americans are disproportionately undercounted. When Black communities are undercounted, they end up being underrepresented and resources are distributed to wealthier white neighborhoods.
Underfunding for census outreach efforts have also contributed to low participation over the past decade. States have had to drive local outreach and mobilization efforts to increase involvement. Kyle Ofori, Director of Community Partnerships for the City of Tulsa, is focusing his efforts on educating communities of color in Tulsa on the importance of filling out the Census. “It’s about building relationships and making sure that we are bringing people along and making sure they know the Census is important to them specifically and not just how it is generally important to all Americans.” While the Census determines how many seats in Congress each state gets, few are aware that it also impacts Title 1 grants, Medicaid funding, the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers Program, the Federal Transit Formula grant, and the National School Lunch Program.
The amount of people in communities that are counted also increases their representation in political districts. “From the city council district all the way to the House of the Representative district that they are in,” shared Ofori. The boundaries for Congressional District 1 are drawn based on the population that is counted and how that population is divided across Oklahoma. An accurate count would lead to an even split among districts and a tighter boundary around the people who are reported as living in Tulsa. A precise count leads to lines being drawn accurately around the people in each community. Ofori explained the process in more detail: “One example that comes to mind is a predominantly Asian-American community in New York that had a strong census turnout. As a result, the community was able to get a district drawn for it where they could have a better chance at electing another Asian-American to represent them rather than having their political power diluted.”
Lack of trust for the government may also be a factor when it comes to Census participation. “Not everyone will automatically think ‘Oh, here is a form from the government this is something that’s important to respond to’,” shared Ofori. Personal information shared on the Census is kept confidential and the data is used for statistical purposes. The penalty for any Census Bureau employee who shares that information is a $250,000 fine and/or 5 years in prison.
Many people are unclear on who is counted in the Census and who isn’t. For example, children under 5 were undercounted in the 2010 Census. “Your brand new baby born on March 31, 2020 [should be] counted on the Census,” explained Ofori. Counting them results in more funds for their future education. Due to President Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question, some immigrant communities may be worried that the Census may be used to target undocumented people. Ofori shared that, “The Census isn’t asking for detailed information. It asks about your name, age, sex, racial/ethnic background, and how you’re related to other people in the household. It also asks for your phone number and information about the household that you’re living in.”
Ofori explained that in this time of COVID-19, healthcare resources are the strongest in communities that have the highest response rate. Funding for Medicaid and Medicare both depend on an accurate Census count. “I believe, in the fiscal year 2016, the Medical Assistance Program distributed about $301 billion around the country. Out of the 55 programs they distributed money to based on the Census, that’s the largest by far. So when we are not getting counted, we are underfunding our own medical systems and our residents’ ability to receive the healthcare that they need.” The Census takes 10-15 minutes to complete. To learn more about the Census and to find helpful graphics, interviews, and information, follow Tulsa Counts on all social media platforms. “The thing I’m most passionate about with the Census is that it’s such an easy way to make sure that your voice is heard in our society. I would like for people to do everything they can to be counted,” shared Ofori.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Ofori