Season 1 / Episode 1
In 1790, U.S. Marshals conducted the nation’s first census under the leadership of then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The official count was 3.9 million. New York, the nation’s largest city, was home to 33,131 people.
Since then, the United States government has made it a practice to update those numbers every 10 years. There is a lot riding on the count. As the 2020 census approaches, Kara Wilkins, principal of Little Rock-based KWilkins Consulting Group LLC and co-host of the Blackbelt Voices podcast, has details on why it’s important to make sure you’re counted.
The Census is Moving Online
For many, this may sound like a welcome and convenient change. But when it comes to broadband access, Arkansas is ranked among the bottom in the country for broadband access – leading to a potential undercount.
“We have a lot of rural communities,” Wilkins said. “About 600,000 people don’t have access to online capabilities in their neighborhoods, and about 200,000 don’t even have the option to have internet accessibility because the infrastructure is not there.”
Arkansas Counts has a grassroots approach in going to these communities to make sure they’re counted.
Inaccurate Numbers Affect Funding
Everyone will benefit from an accurate count in the 2020 Census. The numbers determine how much the government will provide for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as well as education, infrastructure, and hospitals.
“Our state stands to lose almost $1 million even if we have a one percent undercount,” Wilkins said.
A one percent undercount for a state the size of Arkansas, which has 3 million people, would exclude 30,000 people. Ninety-seven percent of Arkansas’ nearly 500 cities and townships have fewer than 30,000 people.
Wilkins says populations that have proven harder to count in the past have been children under five, the elderly, immigrants, and those living in rural areas. Another population includes African-Americans.
“When legislators drafted the constitution in 1787, they argued about who should be considered eligible to be counted in the population and how that decision would affect the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives,” Wilkins said. “That’s another thing that is key to the census; it still governs where lines are drawn for congressional representation.”
The Three-Fifths Compromise was drawn out of Northerners’ fear of being outnumbered by Southerners if slaves were to be counted.
“So historically, Black people have always been undercounted. You can see the residual effects of that in 2019,” Wilkins said. “Since 1990, we have seen a decline in and/or stagnant population growth in terms of census numbers for Black people. It declined from 1990 to 2010, and we’re on pace to see zero change from 2010 to 2020. We know that’s not true.”
One thing that may be throwing the numbers, Wilkins says, is the prison system. Black men are more likely to be incarcerated. When they’re in jail, they’re not counted as belonging to the community in which they live but the community where the prison is located.
All children ages 0-5 have a tendency to be hard-to-count. But children of color are twice as likely to be undercounted than white children.
“White children under 5 are undercounted at a 2 percent rate. Black children are undercounted at a 6 percent rate, and Latinx children are undercounted at an 8 percent rate.”
What to Expect
The census will be rolled out in phases. Beginning in March 2020, people will be able to go online to fill out the 10-question form.
“You’ll receive a notification in the mail that will give you instructions on how to do that,” Wilkins said.
If you don’t do it the first time, they’ll send you a reminder and will give you the option to request a paper form.
“We’re trying to spread the word about that, particularly to the elderly who are not as likely to fill out the form electronically but are most likely to complete the census form.”
If you don’t fill out the form electronically or on paper, Wilkins says there will be a third wave in which the Census Bureau will send enumerators – or “door knockers” – into neighborhoods. But they’ll only go to those neighborhoods that have had a high volume of people not filling out forms.
There are 10 simple questions on the form that ask for the number of people in your household and demographic information, such as race and gender. The form does not require you to submit your social security number or any other private information.
How You Can Help
- Tell people the census is moving online in 2020.
- Apply for a job. The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring temporary and part-time enumerators and field operators .
- Help those who are not as internet savvy fill out the form. You can do it anywhere as long as you know the person’s address and who lives in the home.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of the census. There’s a lot riding on those numbers and we don’t get another chance until 2030.