The U.S. Constitution places the census at the foundation of our democracy by calling for a count of the nation's residents every 10 years. We only have one chance every decade to count our population, and it’s important that we get it right. We now have less than one year before the 2020 Census will be in full swing. The logistics of this undertaking are massive, and the stakes are even greater. In Maryland, our goal is to ensure that every resident is counted once and in the right place according to where they live on Census Day, April 1, 2020.
In the coming months, our state — whose census efforts are led by the governor’s Department of Planning — has a lot of work to do to prepare for a full and accurate count of our population. The census will determine our seats in Congress; guide the distribution of more than $16 billion in federal funding to our state; and help make decisions on job creation, housing, emergency preparation and constructing schools, roads and hospitals.
To add to the factors associated with ensuring a fair and accurate count, for the first time ever, the 2020 census will be mostly completed online. With 14 percent of Marylanders lacking any internet access or having dial-up only access, the online response will be a new challenge to ensuring a full count next year.
In 2010, Maryland had an overall response rate of 80.3 percent, which required costly follow-up to non-respondents and likely a loss in resources for communities with low response. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Carroll County had the highest participation at 83 percent and Worcester County had the lowest at 59 percent in 2010.
It’s estimated that every Marylander counted in the census equates to $1,800 in federal funding per person each year. Over 10 years, this adds up to $18,000 per person, which means that missing almost 20 percent of our population comes at a major cost to our resources.
Historically, the census has left out certain communities — including people of color, urban and rural low-income households, non-English speakers and young children — at disproportionately high rates. Being undercounted deprives these communities of equal political representation and resources. It’s estimated that 12 percent of Marylanders live in “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, which are neighborhoods where almost a quarter or more of households did not mail back their census forms in 2010.
Results released earlier this year from the 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study (CBAMS) identified five barriers that might prevent residents from responding to the census: concerns about data privacy and confidentiality, fear of repercussions, distrust in all levels of government, feeling that it doesn’t matter if you are counted, and belief that completing the census might not benefit you personally. Although only 45 percent of respondents were aware of the role the census plays in determining community resources, funding for public services was a top motivator for responding to the census.
Adding to the factors impacting our census count, last year, the U.S. secretary of commerce announced that an untested and unnecessary question on citizenship would be added to the 2020 Census form. Several states, including Maryland, have filed suit against the inclusion of the citizenship question because of the chilling effect it would have on certain communities responding to the census form. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments next week and issue a decision on the case in June. The citizenship question jeopardizes our ability to have an accurate count, and the outcome of this case will have major impact on our efforts to count everyone in our state.
Following legislation I introduced in the 2019 legislative session to create a 2020 Census Maryland Complete Count Commission, the governor created this commission by executive order. It’s critical that our Complete Count Commission sets the tone and leads the state in developing a robust plan focused on reaching hard-to-count communities.
Although the U.S. Census Bureau and our own state agencies have official roles in the critical undertaking of the 2020 Census, we each have a role to play in engaging our own communities and working with nonprofits, community leaders and trusted voices to ensure that every single resident is counted. Our democracy, local community services, funding and fair representation depends on everyone’s participation.
Jheanelle Wilkins represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.