What Is The Census? And Why Does It Matter?

Something big is happening this year. Every single person living inside the United States will be be counted for the 2020 census. Every. Single. Person.

“Everybody talks about voting, and voting is extremely, essentially important. The census, I would argue is more so. Because it doesn’t matter what your citizenship status is. It doesn’t matter what your age is,” said María Milner (director of equity and inclusion with the Austin Area League of Women Voters) on a recent episode of Shades of Green.

So why is this seemingly boring and bureaucratic task so important? That was the topic of the latest episode of Shades of Green (Austin’s environmental talk radio show and our radio partner). You can listen to the full podcast above (or on iTunes) and read our summary below.

So why is the census so important?

Every 10 years, the US government conducts a census in order to get an accurate count of everyone living within our borders.

The data collected from the census is then used to make lots of big decisions, including:

  • Federal funding for schools, roads, buses, and healthcare services
  • Political lines that are drawn for Congress, State House seats, and school board members
  • Public safety and emergency preparedness

And why is the census so important for Austinites?

Local leaders are investing a lot of time, money, and energy into ensuring that everyone in Austin gets counted, because in a changing and growing city like ours, we have a lot to gain and learn by making sure everyone fills out the census.

For example, the census data could help us:

  • Gain more political representation in Congress – There are a set number of seats in the US House of Representatives (435), but every 10 years, how those seats are divvied up changes based on population numbers determined via the census
  • Access more federal funding
  • Understand our own city better and make better policy decisions

In particular, there has been a lot of focus on ensuring that historically undercounted/ underrepresented communities are accurately counted this time around. To try and address this, the following groups have been created to lead the census effort within their own communities:

Will there be a citizenship question on the census?

As it says on the Austin/ Travis County Census website – “The 2020 Census questionnaire will NOT include a question about an individual’s citizenship status. Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, has certain basic rights.”

It is constitutionally mandated that everyone be counted in the US census. Answers are kept confidential and are used for statistical purposes only. Again, as it says on the Austin/ Travis County Census website – “Answers cannot be used for law enforcement purposes or to determine personal eligibility for government benefits. Personal information cannot be used against respondents for the purposes of immigration enforcement.”

However, that does not mean there isn’t still a lot of fear and concern about the census, especially within immigrant communities. It’s an issue that many local grassroots organizations are working to understand and address.

“It’s really having conversations with folks,” María said during the Shades of Green interview. “And having a conversation to listen, not to be heard.”

María explained that during these conversations she tries to understand what peoples’ daily hopes, dreams, and concerns are, and then show how they connect back to the census.

“This is it,” María said.  “This happens every 10 years and it’s super crucial to be part of this conversation. Because where everywhere else you might feel like you’ve not been heard, this is the moment where you can get a chance to be heard.”

Okay. So how do I participate?

  1. Fill out the census! A postcard should arrive in your mailbox by mid-March. On the postcard will be a code, so that you can take the census online. (There will also be physical pop-up stations around town where you can take the census, if you’re unable to fill it out online at your house.)
  2. Volunteer! Ensuring that every Austin resident fills out the census will be a massive effort and it won’t happen without everyone’s help. Volunteers are needed to help organize events in their communities, work on the website, and make digital outreach materials. You can fill out this form to get involved. 
  3. Attend an upcoming census event. Census Ambassador trainings are being conducted on a regular basis for anyone committed to learning key aspects of the 2020 Census and sharing census information within their networks and organizations. The University of Texas is also hosting a Front Porch Gathering on the “Census and the Asian American Community” on Tuesday, February 18th at 6:30pm at the Asian American Resource Center.
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