After weeks of disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau entered June with a sense of renewal.
First, the bureau executed its wide scale reopening of Area Census Offices (ACOs). These centers serve as the temporary hubs for staff, materials and equipment tied to local census operations, including door-to-door follow-ups with households that have not responded.
Second, the bureau reported in late May that it reached the goal of getting more than 60% of U.S. households to respond to the 2020 census.
The truth is we won’t count everyone in 2020. We never have. But by moving online, we are turning a corner in how we count our population.
History demonstrates why. In 1850, there were separate questionnaires for “free inhabitants” and “slave inhabitants.” Free inhabitants were asked to list the profession for all men older than age 15, and anyone older than age 30 “who cannot read & write.” The slave questionnaire identified the owner’s name, and the age, gender and “colour” of each slave. Both forms had columns asking if someone were “deaf and dumb,” “blind,” “insane,” “idiotic,” a “pauper” or a “convict.” Not in today’s America.
In 1960, members of each household were written in this order: “head of household on first line” followed by “wife of head.” The race column asked: “Is this person white, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Part Hawaiian, Aleut, Eskimo, (etc.)?” Not in today’s America.
The days of such hateful, divisive rhetoric are over — on paper. On the 2020 census form, there is no reference to the “wife” or the “Negro,” which appeared as recently as 2010. This year, “Person 1” is the owner of a residence or the individual who pays the rent. Each subsequent person then is asked to identify how they relate to Person 1. There are several choices, from “adopted son or daughter” to “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” to “roommate or housemate.” That’s today’s America.
Under the race question, households can mark one or more boxes for each member, while adding the origin. Americans who are half Ethiopian, a quarter Japanese and a quarter German have the chance to be counted the way they identify. That’s today’s America.
This is progress, but only if our nation’s diversity is fully and accurately counted. Is 60% participation really the bar in America? And in Virginia, some “hard-to-count” census communities are defined by race: Black and African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander.
In 1790, the founders implemented the count as part of the U.S. Constitution to help shape representation in Congress. The data still dictates the distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the division of $675 billion in federal dollars to the states for schools, roads and other programs.
In February 2019, the Urban Institute warned about the census’ history of disproportionately failing to count African Americans. Even after 200 years of refining, the 1990 census undercounted black communities by 4%. The 2000 census did so by 2%. The 2010 census was nearly a perfect count of the overall population. But by race, whites were overcounted by 0.8%, while African Americans were undercounted by 2.1%.
Those figures might not seem like a lot. But within a U.S. population of nearly 330 million people, if you line up groups of 100, knock off two people of one race and add one of another, those mistakes add up.
Ending the historic undercount of Americans by race and stopping the labeling of communities as “hard to count” needs to be part of the solution. Let’s turn another corner.
— Adapted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!