The U.S. Census survey is an infrequent intruder, showing up every 10 years to pry, prod and sometimes annoy. But in a city like Memphis, with high poverty and low response, getting a good count in 2020 is a must or the consequences could really hurt, experts say.
“The census is our only opportunity to create a universe of data that we can use to create representative samples that help us understand everything,” said Cara Brumfield, a senior policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “So when groups of people of color are systematically undercounted that puts them and their communities at a disadvantage.”
At stake could be the viability of the city, which is about 64% black, has a poverty rate of 27.8%, and a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, making it the second-poorest large city in the nation, behind Detroit.
More than 300 programs rely on the census for over $800 billion in public money that is distributed around the country, according to the GW Institute of Public Policy at The George Washington University. That includes funding for Medicaid, the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), Section 8 housing, Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, special education, unemployment insurance and social services block grants. It’s also used to draw congressional, state legislative and school districts, and voting precincts.
“When you tie the census to the allocation of federal dollars or local dollars, I think there’s probably some motivation to make sure that certain communities don’t get the economic benefit from an accurate count,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We know that federal dollar allocation is based on the population, so if they don’t get counted, they don’t get all the resources they need; not just to sustain themselves but to improve.”
The undercount in Memphis during the 2010 Census is estimated at 1.42%, according to a report by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The city received $6,586,442 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds in 2018 based on its census count of 646,889, the report says. If 1.42% were missed, that’s about 9,190 people.
The GW Institute points out that “while we cannot draw a straight line between the number of people counted in the census and the dollars a state receives for all census-guided programs, we can calculate the direct impact of a census undercount on federal allocations for several large programs that help states improve their residents’ well-being.” Those five grant programs are Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Title IV-E Foster Care, Title IV-E Adoption Assistance, and the Child Care and Development Fund.
The institute used a 1% undercount as a base for calculating 2015 losses for states, estimating a loss of $1,091 per person in Tennessee or $69,205,364 for the five programs. However, in Memphis, the undercount was higher, 1.42%.
Only 67% of Memphis residents responded to the census in 2010, compared with 70% in Shelby County and 74% nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Memphis ranked among the bottom in big-city response rates, joining Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland and New Orleans in failing to improve its participation rates between the surveys in 2000 and 2010.
Black and brown deemed hard to count
The census count is mandated under the U.S. Constitution and is conducted every 10 years, tasking people across the country to report their age, sex, race and relationship to the resident in their household who fills out the questionnaire.
But black and brown adults and children have been notoriously missed in the count. The U.S. Census Bureau considers racial and ethnic minorities, as well as low-income people, as part of a “hard-to-count” population because of barriers created by language, frequent moves or homelessness, and suspicion of government and the way the data will be used.
The 2020 Census made headlines earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the form. Critics argued the question was an attempt to intimidate immigrants, while the government claimed it would help the Dept. of Justice locate minority voters and enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Though the critics won, publicity around the question made already hesitant immigrant communities even more reluctant to respond.
“We’ve been missed in previous decades, but in 2020 there was a real, concerted effort to keep our community out of the count,” said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, which has team members working to lift census participation rates.
Calvo noted that while the Supreme Court ruled in favor of leaving the citizenship question out of the census, he’s worried the damage is already done.
“I’m worried that it’ll take more than one round of the census to bring the accurate count back now,” Calvo said. “If anyone thinks a self-reported survey will find documented or undocumented people, they are mistaken.” The Latino community was “already hesitant to get close to anything related to the government, but now it’s a disaster.”
To make matters worse, the Government Accountability Office labeled the 2020 Census as one of a handful of federal programs at “high risk” of failure due to a low budget, cybersecurity and information technology weaknesses, and vacant management positions.
To boost responses and save money, the Census Bureau will allow residents to fill out the census form online, by phone or mail. As a result, the bureau is only filling 500,000 temporary positions, down from more than 850,000 in 2010.
“There has been an intentional, orchestrated effort to make sure that certain communities are not counted,” Abudu said.
Using data from the nonpartisan think tank the Urban Institute, NPR reported in June that challenges “threatening the upcoming 2020 census could put more than 4 million people at risk of being undercounted’ in 2020, and “could hit some of the country’s most difficult-to-count populations the hardest. Based on the institute’s analysis, the 2020 census could lead to the worst undercount of black and Latino and Latina people in the U.S. since 1990,” as much as 3.68% or about 1.7 million people.
Memphis gets ready for the count
In Memphis, Mayor Jim Strickland’s office has allocated $300,000 of the city’s $685 million budget, or 0.04%, for census outreach through grants to community groups and advertisements, according to Allison Fouche, the city’s deputy chief communications officer. Requests for proposals will go out in December, she said, months ahead of Census Day on April 1, 2020.
“I don’t know that [$300,000] would be enough, but I know their budget is tight,” said State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis). “But there are discretionary funds on a state level that could be delegated to the city.”
The 2020 Census will start rolling out in remote parts of the U.S. in January, but most households will begin to receive their notice in the mail in March.
“The one message the Census Bureau is trying to get out is that it’s easy and it’s safe to participate in,” said Jennifer Van Hook, a 2020 Census advisory committee member and a sociologist and demographer at Pennsylvania State University. “The census has this very long history of protecting data that they are not allowed to give away to other agencies within the federal government.”
Grassroots organizers remain wary.
“People are skeptical about participating in a census where they feel like they have something held against them,” said the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, founder and lead organizer of UPTheVote901. “When you have a population like Memphis, where so many people are reluctant to give the government your information, it’s a catch-22 because we need this information the most.”
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