It seems like such a simple and obvious equation: If we have a government based upon representation by the people, then periodically those people need to be counted to ensure adequate and accurate representation. A provision in the Constitution states that every 10 years, the population of the United States should be counted, and representation and taxation apportioned. This is known as the U.S. Census. In 2020, if the count and numbers bear out expectations, North Carolina is projected to add an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In order to represent the people, we need to know who the people are and where they are, right? This seems obvious enough. But when talking about a beast the size and complexity of the U.S. population, it is far from a simple matter. According to a history by the U.S. Census Bureau, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were expecting a larger population figure than the 3.9 million counted in the first census of 1790. Census-takers were not given a standard form to fill in, just asked to tabulate and collect information for the following:
• Free white males of 16 years and up
• Free white males under 16 years
• Free white females
• All other free persons
The census has since changed; enumerators no longer scribble on paper. Over the years, standardized forms have been developed and introduced, and in 2020 much of the reporting is expected to happen online. Indeed, today I received a letter instructing me to go the census website and enter the unique pin number for my address to fill out the census.
In previous years there has been a big push to remind people to participate in the census and to try to get as many people counted as possible. Usually, the hiring of census enumerators is a matter of course; these are temporary jobs that typically pay above the usual hourly wage of an area. I have seen very little activity of that kind this year. As distrust in the government has grown, and Americans have become increasingly mobile, it has become more and more difficult to get an accurate census count.
From the U.S. Census Bureau:
“Studies after the 1950 and 1960 censuses revealed those censuses had undercounted certain segments of the population. Researchers also noted a growing distrust of government and resistance to responding to the Census, despite an increasing need for accurate information in both the private and public sectors.”
The U.S. Census Bureau website, which has a really wonderful interactive history of all previous censuses, describes at great length efforts to get people to participate (it’s been historically difficult to count communities). In the last census, curriculum was made available to American history classes concerning the history and purpose of the census. There was also a national advertising campaign, a toll-free hotline for help filling out forms, a road show that went to NASCAR and the Super Bowl, and more.
(A visit to the North Carolina Census website is rather drab. They are pretty blunt about being underfunded—to the point we do not even have a regional census office opening in North Carolina.)
The 2020 census has been fraught for some time prior to its launch. In early 2018 a controversy began about the inclusion of a question identifying citizenship on the upcoming census. From the NC Counts Coalition:
“A citizenship question will significantly increase the cost of the 2020 Census and result in far less accurate data, and ultimately in a loss of federal funds to North Carolina communities.”
Last June the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the removal of the citizenship question from this census. However, significant damage to public perception remains. As NC Counts notes, “It is necessary to rebuild trust within North Carolina’s most vulnerable communities.”
Last week another blow to public trust hit the Census, as brought to light by County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who also serves as the co-chair of the Complete Count Committee with Mayor Bill Saffo. The Complete Count Committee is composed of leaders from our municipalities and ambassadors from historically undercounted groups who are trying to ensure New Hanover County achieves an accurate census count. Many media outlets, encore included, received a notice from New Hanover County’s Office of Communications and Outreach that included the following:
“During a March 5 meeting of the Complete Count Committee, a Census Bureau partner specialist shared with the group that if respondents to the 2020 Census survey did not answer questions about race or gender, the census would not follow up with those respondents and would instead default them as ‘white’ and/or ‘male.’“
Commissioner Barfield was justifiably concerned by this news and sent a request to the U.S. Census Bureau that they reconsider this position. We reached out to New Hanover County to ask if any response had been received. Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for NHC, responded, as of press time, the county had not yet received any acknowledgment.
She added, “We received this information on March 5 at our Complete Count Committee, and it is our understanding that our regional partner specialists had only learned of it recently as well.”
In addition to the possibility of additional Congressional representation, the U.S. Census figures are used to allocate federal funding. The NC Counts Coalition cites over $16 billion dispersed annually to North Carolina for programs that benefit housing, transportation, human services, education and healthcare. “A single missed person is almost equivalent to a forfeited $16,000 in funding for North Carolina over a 10-year period.”
There are a variety of reasons why a person might choose not to answer a question identifying race or gender. Now more than ever, conversations about binary gender and gender identity are coming to the fore. Newer generations of census responders might feel uncomfortable with identifying along a gender binary or as the gender assigned to them at birth. Perhaps allies, in a show of solidarity, might choose not to answer the question. Though it may sound absurd at first brush, please, remember we are the state known for “The Bathroom Bill,” which legally required people to use a bathroom assigned to their birth gender.
Also, half the world’s population is not male. Why is the default assumption male? For years I have avoided that question on surveys, sensing for some reason if I identify myself as female, I am immediately relegating my answers to the rubbish heap. Have I ever been told outright that would be the case? No. But every meeting I sit in on, or decision I watch get made in a group re-enforces that, if the idea or information doesn’t come from someone masculine, powers that be are not interested. Funding for programs that support women’s, prenatal and early childhood healthcare depend upon census reporting. If people choose not to self-report, or the census fails to include a gender option that recognizes non-binary people, those numbers will be skewed to show a higher male population. Therefore, the census could show less need for programs like WIC that provide support and care for nursing mothers and infant children. Thus, we are all as a community losing out.
It’s revealing that the census is making an assumption of both gender and race for people who don’t readily identify as white and male—or, it would be for anyone who didn’t already realize institutionalized racism and chauvinism are the basis for daily life in our country. What’s more surprising is the U.S. Census Bureau openly admitting this fact.
The constructs of race and ethnicity are fraught. I understand statisticians like categories, but grouping and identifying people isn’t easy nowadays. Having an understanding of the changing face of America is important, especially when allocation of resources is at stake. How we internalize identity is different for each of us.
I have never, personally, felt comfortable checking a box that says “white” on any form. I am clearly of European dissent: a blend of Dutch, German, and pretty much every part of the pale of Russia. I have a hard time separating the term “white” or “Caucasian” from images of carefully marked, separated drinking fountains. I have a hard time seeing myself with that label: as a person who would want or would accept the perceived benefit or value of a separate drinking fountain. If anything, the whole idea makes me feel like vomiting.
I started marking “other” in school on all forms, but for the purpose of the census, I am about as European as they come, and, yes, I fill in that blank accurately. I have to imagine there are people in the world who have a similar feeling about answering a question regarding race on this form.
Are there enough words in the world to describe how we see ourselves? Or how we would describe ourselves to others? No. Frankly, I do not trust the decision makers on high. But we need better representation in Congress, and we owe it to the most vulnerable parts of our community to try to bring as much help as possible. A rising tide lifts all boats.