Hard as this might be to believe, the U.S. Census was once as controversial as counting sheep. Injustices such as excluding former slaves and “Indians not taxed” were behind us. The census evolved into a routine act of civic maintenance, the equivalent of changing the oil in our democracy every 10 years.
“The plan,” the U.S. Census Bureau explains on its website, “was to count every living person in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress.”
Simple enough except nothing’s simple in The Time of the Great Divider. These days even a Sharpie gets weaponized, so why not arm the census to solidify your goofy grip on power?
The good news is that the Supreme Court narrowly shot down the Administration’s plan to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. But the long, scary debate almost certainly had a chilling effect that could dissuade many from participating. For that matter, immigrant roundups, family separations and hate speech from the Oval Office don’t exactly encourage answering the census. Imagine working a 16-hour shift in a dairy barn, then coming home to learn that ICE deported your nephew—and, oh by the way, in the interest of maintaining a healthy democracy and getting our regional share of highway funding, the government wants you to disclose whether the people living in your trailer “are Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin.”
Good luck with that.
“There was this fear that existed especially before we knew if there was going to be a citizenship question on the survey,” says Tory Russo, the city’s census coordinator. “I’m sure some of that fear is still out there.”
Other obstacles abound: Language issues and refusal to answer the door for fear that a census worker is a cop or a bill collector. Then by moving online, this assumed convenience in completing the form poses yet another challenge for some due to poor internet connectivity in neighborhoods such as the South Side.
Strategies to overcome those problems are supposed to be in the works, but there’s much to do before mid-March when the bureau’s online canvassing begins. Census organizers will need to go beyond merely explaining to people what the census is and why it’s important to be counted. This time a more complex message must be conveyed: That the federal government has normal, necessary non-political functions that operate independently of the gibberish and cruelty generated by the child-maniac plopped at the pinnacle.
Kayla Kelechian, an organizer with the Workers Center of Central New York, put it this way:
“You tell people don’t answer the door because it might be ICE, and now you’re telling them to open it (for census workers).”
Factor in reports that the Trump Administration is forever trying to deport legal residents, and it’s only logical that those on the fringes would be skittish about popping up for an official head count — assuming they’re aware one even exists. I recently asked a New American friend from Sudan if he was planning to answer the census.
“What is this census you speak of?” he asked apprehensively. “What do I need to do?”
I explained that the census is no big deal, but on the other hand it is kind of a big deal. Eventually he seemed to understand, sort of, and calmed down. I’m leaving my friend’s name out of this story because he’s my friend, and I don’t trust the government. But it’s a small example of what census advocates will be up against in terms of outreach.
Locally, the job of getting the count out falls to the snappily named 2020 Census Syracuse-Onondaga County Complete Count Committee (SOC-CCC). The panel’s 50 members include representatives of businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions. The strategy is to use “trusted messengers” — particularly from organizations that work with immigrants and the poor — to educate clients that participating in the census is necessary and the information they provide is protected. Census data can be used for statistical purposes only and not passed on to law enforcement, nor can census officials disclose your identity for any reason.
Let’s hope it stays that way.
“There’s such a distrust of this government, but at the end of the day we have to work through it because it’s about resources,” Kelechian said.
To that end, Interfaith Works of Central New York, one of the city’s primary refugee resettlement agencies (where I spend time as a volunteer) recently won a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation to create a wired kiosk to teach new Americans about the census. Abdul Saboor, a community navigator with Interfaith, acknowledged that education is only part of it.
“How do you motivate a population that is being constantly targeted?” he asked.
He believes the answer lies in casting the census as an opportunity for new Americans and other groups to shed their fear and passivity and instead take an active role in shaping the future of the country.
“This is not a political issue,” Saboor said. “It’s a civic issue.”
There used to be little disagreement about that. Census data is used for far more than apportioning Congressional seats. It’s the source material for drawing state legislative boundaries and as a basis for distributing federal aid for roads, schools, academic research and on and on.
The census may be boring, but its endgame is not. It’s about sharing power, money and information in the most equitable way the framers could envision.
“We need to reclaim what the census is,” said Rahzie Seals, who, like Kelechian, is a coordinator at the Workers Center. “Can you imagine if everyone in the city of Syracuse was counted, what that would look like, what that would mean?”
Jeff Kramer is a columnist for The Stand. He has written newspaper columns for many, many years in Syracuse and elsewhere. To contact him with story ideas, call (315) 420-2619 or email firstname.lastname@example.org