Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes its constitutional duty to establish a record of the entire population of the country.
The census poses questions to each household aimed at gathering every person’s geographic location while logging characteristics such as age, sex, marital status, race, income, education, and languages spoken at home. The data gathered is then used to determine what resources are needed in certain communities to serve its population, as well as redrawing state and federal legislative districts and determining congressional seats.
Historically, the census has resulted in an inaccurate portrayal of marginalized communities. Since its inception, there have been sustained efforts to ensure poor people, people of color, and other marginalized populations remain undercounted and unsupported. This foundation commenced with the constitutional convention of 1787, when delegates from both northern and southern states agreed that every five slaves would count as only three people for taxation and representation purposes, resulting in a grossly inaccurate historical population record.
Today people of color and poor people are still being manipulated and used in the scheme of creating and maintaining inequity in neighborhoods. America hyper-incarcerates Black people more than any other race in the country, and the census observes prison-based jerrymandering, in which incarcerated people are counted as residents of their incarceration location rather than their listed address. Because prisons are often located in quality rural and suburban neighborhoods, this advances the political representation of those areas and unfairly redistributes public assistance dollars away from communities in need to areas that are already well-resourced.
Such underrepresentation in the census results in a lack of political representation and funding for social services, including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 housing choice vouchers, infrastructure, public school funding and more, thus creating unequal opportunity for certain neighborhood residents.
If your neighborhood hospital has long wait times, if your local public schools are overcrowded and are lacking resources for students, your community may have been undercounted in the last census. When communities are correctly counted, money and resources are accurately distributed to fit their needs. It is crucial that we all fulfill our civil duties and guarantee our communities thrive by filling out the 2020 Census.
New York state lost two congressional seats due to a census undercount in 2010. As we weather the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Yorkers have seen the importance of congressional representatives.
We need accurate counts of our neighborhoods. We need our fair share of representatives to advocate for our needs. You can make a difference by filling out the 2020 Census online, by mail or phone. Tell your neighbors, and everyone you know that they matter and can contribute to improving their community by filling out the 2020 Census. Visit www.nyc.gov/census today.
Britny McKenzie, MSW
Fair Housing Justice Center