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Why the 2020 census is as important as ever

Even with COVID-19 upending our lives, communities still need to be counted.

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By Dr. Octavio N. Martinez, Jr. Hogg Foundation for Mental Health

Octavio N. Martinez, Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and senior associate vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a clinical professor in UT’s School of Social Work and professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School.

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Though it is difficult to think of the year 2020 as being about anything other than the global COVID-19 pandemic, this will also be the year that the United States conducts its 24th nationwide census. This constitutionally mandated count of all residents of the United States has been conducted every ten years since 1790. That means that for over two centuries, through times of war and times of peace, the U.S. Census Bureau has never failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to count every person living in the U.S. as of April 1st (Census Day). The purpose of the census is to determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S House of Representatives and forms the basis for distributing billions of dollars in federal funds for state and local use for each of the next ten years.

An accurate census count is a crucial piece of sustaining democracy, which is why it takes place every ten years no matter the political, economic or social circumstances of the day.

Conducting the census during the era of COVID-19 remains as important as ever, as the stakes for gaining an accurate count remain extremely high.

If the Texas population is undercounted in the 2020 census by as little as 1%, our state could lose $300 million every year for the next ten years. That’s $3 billion less funding for community services like schools, fire departments, roads, housing and healthcare over the next decade. Fears of an undercount are not unfounded: in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau undercounted Texans by nearly 239,500 residents.

Undercounted communities, sometimes referred to as “hard-to-count” (HTC) populations, are recognized by a range of sociodemographic qualities. They include persons of color, cultural and linguistic minorities, persons experiencing homelessness, low income persons, lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer/questioning persons, persons residing in rural or geographically isolated areas, undocumented immigrants, young children and persons without Internet access. Nonprofit organizations have spent millions over the last year funding community-outreach programs that aim to reach hard-to-count communities for the 2020 census. The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, for example, granted $2.1 million in 2019 to 28 organizations to support complete count efforts in Texas for the 2020 census as part of its Texas Communities Count initiative.

While the stakes of gaining an accurate count remain high as ever, COVID-19 does introduce new challenges for outreach efforts. In many hard-to-count communities, neighborhood centers like churches and schools are prime locations for census outreach, where people can gather to learn from their friends and neighbors, build trusting relationships and share information about the census and why it is important, as well as dispel myths and misunderstandings. Without the ability to congregate and share resources in this way, many census outreach efforts are scrambling to pivot and adapt their ground strategies to new social distancing measures.

Fortunately, as organizations around the world transition in-person operations to online and remote activities, census workers have a unique opportunity to broaden digital outreach and connect to people for whom online-interactions are becoming the new normal. In fact, anyone can respond to the census entirely online or over the phone, without ever having to interact with another person. Furthermore, for those who may want a respite from sitting at home and feeling helpless in the face of coronavirus, today is the perfect day to take a few moments to do something positive to help your community by filling out the census at home.

To be sure, very few things will go according to plan this season. But in the midst of these uncertain times, the U.S. census remains a solid pillar of our democracy that demands our attention, no matter how distracted we are by the current public health crisis. It is an opportunity to stand up and get counted, just as we have done every ten years, and will continue to do every ten years, regardless of the circumstances our nation faces.