Experts suggest as many as 1.7 million Black Americans could be missed this year in the 2020 Census, which would be the largest undercount in 30 years.
This is part two of a series exploring how organizations, advocates, and activists across the country are working to ensure an accurate count in the 2020 Census. You can read part one here, and an explainer on the census can be found here.
The world is, understandably, focused on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But Wednesday marks a crucial day in the United States for a whole other reason: It’s Census Day.
Over the next few months, tens of millions of Americans will respond and participate in the 2020 U.S. Census, the once-a-decade headcount of the nation’s population. Regardless of when people respond to the census—whether it’s next week, next month, or in August—they’ll tell the Census Bureau where they lived on Census Day, April 1.
The census may seem trivial while a pandemic is sickening and killing Americans and devastating the economy, but this count determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is spent every year and how much goes to state and local governments to operate programs like Medicaid, free school meals, unemployment insurance, and food assistance. These programs, which are a lifeline for many Americans under normal circumstances, could be all the more critical during and after the coronavirus crisis.
To ensure these funds are distributed equitably across the country, the Census Bureau needs to complete an accurate count in 2020. If a community and state aren’t counted properly, they won’t get the full resources you need. While most Americans are likely to be accurately counted this year, there is one group particularly vulnerable to being undercounted: Black men. It wouldn’t be the first time, either. The census has undercounted America’s Black population for more than 60 years, leading to a disproportional lack of federal funding and resources for many already marginalized communities.
Census data also determines how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives and influences how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. By virtue of being undercounted, Black Americans have been robbed of proportional political representation, reducing the strength of their voice in the halls of Congress and state legislatures across the country.
While the counts of Black Americans have gotten more accurate in recent decades, researchers at the Urban Institute are concerned that as many as 1.7 million Black Americans could be missed this year, which would be the largest undercount in 30 years.
If that occurs, it’s likely to be driven by a substantial undercount of Black men, said Rebecca DeHart, CEO of Fair Count, a Georgia-based nonprofit founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams working to achieve an accurate count in the state. “Black men are the number one historically most undercounted group of people in any racial or ethnic minority,” DeHart told COURIER.
Black Americans are vulnerable to undercounts for several reasons. More than one in five live in poverty, which increases the likelihood of being missed in the census count. Nearly 60% of Black households are also renters, a population that is undercounted at higher rates than homeowners. Black Americans are also more likely to be “doubled up,” moving in with family or friends due to lack of affordable, available housing options, and also face higher rates of eviction than other demographics, especially in the South.
Together, these factors led 800,000 Black Americans, or 2% of the Black population, to be undercounted in the 2010 Census. But among Black men ages 30-49, that rate was a staggering 10%, meaning one out of every 10 Black men in that age range was missed in the count.
All of which begs the question: Why do Black men in particular face such high rates of undercounts?
“Black men opt out,” former Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2019. “They don’t want to be counted by the government because they don’t want the government walking to their door, because maybe in the past they had negative interactions with the criminal justice system.” (Black men are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of their white counterparts.)
Fair Count estimates that as many as 67,000 Black men are at risk of going uncounted in Georgia, which would have substantial consequences for their communities.
“At $2,300 a person every year, Georgia could lose $154 million in federal funding annually for the next decade and tens of thousands of black men won’t have their fair share of political power,” the organization says on its website.
That would mean $154 million lost for programs such as Medicaid, school lunch, special education, food stamps, student loans, and highway construction.
The fear of losing these resources is why DeHart and the team at Fair Count created Black Men Count, an initiative launched in May 2019 that aims to achieve a fair and accurate count in Georgia by involving Black men to serve as community leaders and figure out how to increase participation. Those representatives include former lawmakers, church leaders, and business owners.
While Black Men Count is the organization’s flagship program, it is far from their only effort to promote census participation. Fair Count, which currently has nearly 30 staffers, has also committed to community organizing and partnering with existing organizations and local leaders in hard-to-count areas.
The people most at risk of an undercount in Georgia live in the central and southern parts of the state. In total, 22% of the state’s population, or 2.3 million people, live in hard-to-count neighborhoods.
These are the regions Fair Count focused on in the pre-pandemic days.
“We really work in rural areas, outside the metro [Atlanta] area,” DeHart said. “We would go down to south Georgia and partner with a health benefit manager at a hospital or the Head Start teacher or the librarian.”
Fair Count also launched a faith program, partnering with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has more than 450 churches in Georgia, to create “congregational complete count committees.”
“We work in places where there’s not a lot of other infrastructure in place, so we know that often, the faith leader of a community is the most trusted voice and they have a lot at stake in those communities to make sure they’re getting their fair share of resources and political power,” DeHart said.
The organization is also aiming to address an underheralded issue surrounding the 2020 Census: the fact that it’s primarily online for the first time ever. About 1.6 million Georgia residents, most of whom live in rural areas, currently lack high-speed internet, which could affect their ability to participate in the census.
“In some counties, there’s not even broadband yet and then there’s a variety of other things that keep people from having access to the internet,” DeHart said. “We went to 25 AME churches and we did installations of the internet. We gifted the churches with a couple iPads and chromebooks and we also paid for the internet in all of them through December 31 of 2020.”
Fair Count is also employing more traditional strategies, including a media campaign featuring radio, television, print, and digital ads promoting census participation. The group’s technological and digital efforts are even more crucial amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed more than 100 people in Georgia.
“Our first concern is that everyone, from advocates to the Bureau to our communities, are safe,” DeHart said. In order to ensure that safety, Fair Count has postponed their planned bus tour of the state until further notice and all staff are now working remotely.
“We are focusing on recalibrating our efforts so that events can be held online and organizing can continue by phone and text,” DeHart said. “We are doubling down on achieving a fair and accurate census because even more is at stake. Communities around the nation will need the resources directed by the census more than ever when we get through this crisis. We need to make sure everyone gets their fair share.”
The U.S. Census Bureau has also been forced to adapt and has suspended its field operations through at least April 15.
While their work has been temporarily disrupted by the coronavirus, Fair Count’s various efforts have drawn national acclaim over the past year, and DeHart said people across the country have asked them to expand into their own states.
“We’re not able to do that, but what we have been able to do is partner with other organizations with depth and reach and experience to implement some of these ideas where they’re needed most,” DeHart said.
Fair Count has partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to train staff members to reach the hardest-to-count communities and build organizing capacity nationwide. The organization also works with the Black Alliance of Just Immigration to translate census materials into 16 different African diaspora languages. Black Men Count has also gone national under a partnership with the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, best known as Boulé, the first and oldest African American Greek-letter fraternal organization in the United States.
The organization’s various outreach efforts underscore the urgency of its effort.
“Our entire democracy is so dependent on the outcome of the census. Everything—more than 300 federal programs, $1.5 trillion, how we re-proportion Congress, how we do redistricting, how school zones are decided, how we decide where to open up businesses, grocery stores—is so dependent on this count and there are definitely forces at play that don’t want certain communities to be counted,” DeHart said. “They don’t want the resources to go to those communities, they don’t want the political power to be shared within those communities and so it would be very easy to scare people off.”
Fair Count believes in this work so much that it’s doing all of it without any funding from the state government. While states like California pour nearly $200 million into ensuring an accurate count, Georgia has committed exactly zero dollars to census outreach. Fair Count, instead, has relied on funding from foundations and private donors. “The ground is ripe and in Georgia, we’re the only game in town for it,” DeHart said.
The Census Bureau sent invitations to participate in the census starting on March 12, and in the weeks since, 34.1% of Georgia households have responded to the census, slightly below the national response rate of 36.2%. But the response rates in those hard-to-reach parts of central and southern Georgia are lower. In Telfair County, for example, only 15.6% of households have responded as of March 30.
These disparities, and what they could lead to, are exactly why Fair Count continues its work to ensure every Georgian is counted in the 2020 Census.
“It is really the only thing that can make decisions for a community a decade at a time,” DeHart said. “We get one chance to get this right and if we don’t get it right, then communities will be suffering for a decade to come.”