How Are We Feeling About the Census?

by Latoya Peterson

census worker

A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I traveled to Harlem to check out Van Hunt in concert. After a night of too-strong cocktails and screaming out the lyrics to the songs, we walked out of the show – only to be handed a mug and a packet, encouraging participation in the United States 2010 Census. The girl in front of us grabbed a mug, but on the way down the stairs said “Thanks for the free cup, but you won’t be hearing from me, Mr. Government Man!” We cracked up.

Over the past few weeks, special interest organizations have been pushing the full court press about standing up to be counted for the Census – and for good reason. Ensuring the actual headcount (normally determined through census workers and paper ballots) is as complete as it can be is vital to government:

Considering the herculean task of counting, within a few months, every person living in the United States, a 1 percent error rate seems reasonable. But the actual count, not the estimate, is what the government goes by when it distributes money and determines election districts for the next 10 years.

And when the federal government, these days, counts money by the trillions, 1 percent is a lot.

In all, the federal government doled out $447 billion in 2008 that was tied in some measure to the census, according to a study released this month by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Medicaid counts for 58 percent of money distributed based on population, with transportation, such as roadwork, making up 10 percent more, according to the Brookings study.

The think-tank and research institute estimates the 2010 Census will be the basis for the distribution of nearly $5 trillion in federal money to state and local governments over the next decade.

“The basic, overall count is the foundation for so many funding formulas,” Childers said. “It’s just amazing how often that number appears.”

The Maynard Institute also explains what is politically on the line:

You said the census is about power and money. What does that mean?

Power: The 10-year Census redraws the political map for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. Northeast and Midwest states have been losing congressional seats while states in the South and West have continued to gain them. This is a huge shift in power that Democrats and Republicans understand. That’s why it was so important for Barack Obama and the Democrats to finally break the Republican hold on the South in 2008. Obama won Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

Money: Census data are used to make decisions about which community services to provide, such as where to build or close schools, and to distribute $300 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year.

And, unfortunately, the census is often one of the only sources of information on POC demographics. The Women of Color and Wealth report often had to default to the Census numbers to get an accurate picture of women of color and their financial state, since so little data was available in other areas. So why are so many of us reluctant to participate? The comments to a recent article on Clutch Magazine reveals some of the more common attitudes about the Census. Zettler Clay, the author of the article, notes:

There is nothing in the Census form that asks about citizenship status, said the U.S. Department of Commerce Regional Director Fernando Armstrong. So illegal immigrants have nothing to worry about.

Red flag.

If that’s the case, then is the government willing to shell out tax dollars to those who may not be U.S. citizens? Or are they ready to use this information to perform a simple audit to find out how many Hispanics are here illegally versus those registered? Once that information is handy, what will the government do with it?

Clay continues:

We, the U.S. citizens, have been bound to a contract with the government since birth. This is an unofficial-official contract that states that we must pay taxes, be a civic asset and know the law. In return, the government will provide us with services (protection, education, medical care), allow us the rights of the land and to a fair trial (habeas corpus).

But everyday there are breaches of this contract in action. Some examples:

* We are required to pay taxes, yet there is nothing in government-funded schools that teaches us how to fill out a W-2 and W-4 tax form. Without the aid of H&R Block and Turbo Tax, many of us would be clueless.
* We’re asked to support the government (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”) but the government can illegally tap your phone and keep us in the dark about the military acts that tax dollars fund.
* Ignorance of the law is no defense, but there is little more than a civics class in high school to enlighten us into the crux of the law and the precedences set. Unless you’re a law aficionado, you will remain ignorant of the law.
* Police officers, the protectors and servers, are funded by the people who routinely find themselves victims of dubious traffic stops and bullets from trigger-happy gentlemen.

The comments to the Clutch piece came in fast and furious, with people advocating both to participate and to ignore the census:

Clnmike says:

Not filling out the census is like not voting you are taking your self out of the debate and not being counted when decisions are being made that WILL effect you and the country. It also negates your right to complain about goverment’s responsibility to it’s people.

caramelgirl says:

oh, Blah, blah blah blah blah. US Census this and US census that, Im so damn tired of the government and brainwashed celebrities trying to push this thing down my throat. They say take it and be counted, I say that is bullshit. The government does not care, it will not try to work for your favor or benefit without it getting something out of it as well. You must be extremely weary of the government and whatever they do, especially when they claim they want to “help”. Anyone who knows US history knows all about the damn “help” they’ve given out to cultures who werent the majority(whites) from establishment, independence and til this day. It seems to me like everytime they try to “help”, people get hurt in the process. I say if they really want to help they dont need a damn census to do it, just ride by the hoods and see how we’re doing, not read some paper.

caj says:

i agree with Clnmike. I understand your anger towards the government and their ineptness, but despite that fact, the physical people in government, and their competence or incompetence, are temporary to the overall effect that the census has on the long-term health and state of our country. If the US does not have accurate data on the demographics, etc. of the nation, how can it properly serve those who live within it. Everyone in government could be replaced with the most competent, good-willed, and effective people, but with no accurate data to help them determine the needs of each region of the country, they will be as effective as the current Congress is. Just like a democracy, the overall structure and intention of it is inherently good, those who run it make it flawed; but it is still necessary to keep things moving along and to help most accurately represent the people who live here. Being angry at the government for not doing what you think they should is perfectly healthy, use the democratic system and vote your official out. Not participating in the census will not only take yourself out of the conversation, it will also decrease your chances of being heard. The more people with your same sentiments who do not compete the census in your area, town, city, etc., the less representation you have, and the greater chance that those areas who did complete it will be able to put people in office that will go after THEIR needs, which might not be your own.

steven says:

black people especially need to fill out the census if not for any other reason than to provide an accurate marker of their lives for their ancestors. my family knows the birth date, hometown, number of siblings, and children of my maternal great grandparents because they filled out the census in 1930.

i’m all for skepticism, but i think this time it might be misplaced.

I also wonder why anyone would complain about the failures of congress and then advocate not to have more seats in the legislature. the majority of the problems related to congress come from the fact that it is a small, tight knit, secretive boys club with access to unlimited funds from lobbyists that have little accountability to the people they serve. More elected officials in congress may lead to more accountability and therefore better policies and service.

Your thoughts, readers?