Opinion

Faced with the Coronavirus, Keep Your Eyes on the Census Prize

By Alejandra Y. Castillo
April 6, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

As Americans work together to slow the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, we must take part in another shared experience: completing the 2020 census. After all, a national emergency like this frightening pandemic reminds us why participating in the census is so important.

By now we’re familiar with some of the basics of the census — it’s a constitutionally required civic duty for each of us to fulfill every 10 years, and it determines the number of representatives each state sends to Congress and determines the amount of tax dollars communities receive to address needs. It is this last point that is top-of-mind as we weather these challenging times. The census count equips communities to prepare for emergencies like COVID-19. Over $675 billion in federal funding is allocated — based on the census — to schools, hospitals, housing providers and services for people in poverty. This funding also provides critical services for survivors of domestic violence, child care, and programs that address housing, nutrition and health needs.

These federally supported services are always important to the strength and stability of our communities, but emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic show us just how vital they are. The amount of federal aid and medical supplies that communities receive during the coronavirus crisis will be determined, in part, not by how many people live in that area but how many people were recorded through the census as living there. This is an important point. It is the count that counts.

The nonprofit organizations and federal programs whose budgets are determined by the census have been on the front lines helping struggling communities during this emergency. Even though schools are closed, there are districts across the country providing free meals through their federally subsidized meal program to the 22 million hungry students that rely on their school for food. Moreover, the census impacts federal funding received by hospitals that are now on the front lines of the COVID19 health crisis.

I have seen it firsthand at the organization that I run — YWCA USA — where there has been an increase in demand for the services we provide from both individuals and governments. Tragically, survivors of domestic violence are facing higher risks during coronavirus. Our shelters are full of women who couldn’t safely self-quarantine at home. The city of El Paso, Texas, turned to trusted community partners like us to offer emergency child care for the frontline health care workers fighting coronavirus. And in New York, we’re delivering meals and medical support to elderly people and other vulnerable populations.

Like many other nonprofit organizations right now, our revenues are plummeting. Fundraisers are being canceled. Despite having less, we’re stepping up to do more where we can. It’s estimated that in 2010, an estimated 16 million people were not counted,  including 1 million children under the age of 5, and 1.5 million black and Hispanic individuals, which has had huge consequences on community funding that supports the work we do. Having an accurate census ensures that communities, and nonprofits like ours, receive every federal dollar that we’re eligible to receive for every day services, and before the next emergency hits.

This “invisible disease” has caused a near total collapse of our economy and our public health systems. Hard hit communities rely on federal programs and nonprofit organizations for help. The budgets that support the current social infrastructure for relief and assistance were determined in part by the last census.

The people most likely to need these services are the marginalized communities that have been disproportionately undercounted. Labeled “hard-to-count,” these groups have historically included communities of color, young children of color, immigrant communities, persons experiencing homelessness, formerly incarcerated individuals, those living below the poverty line and many other marginalized communities and identities.

Unfortunately, the communities who are undercounted by the U.S. census incur detrimental impacts such as disproportionately low federal funding, underrepresentation in federal, state and local government, and insufficient civil right protections. And when emergencies like coronavirus hit, these already vulnerable people become even more vulnerable.

We need to make sure our communities are ready to handle anything that comes their way, whether it’s a natural disaster or a pandemic like coronavirus. It’s so important that everyone gets counted this year. Community-based organizations, local governments and community members must come together to reach hard to count individuals, families, and neighborhoods. We must dispel fears caused by fear-mongering and inaccurate information, and work with other community leaders to reach hard-to-count community members. We still have time to adjust our strategies and tactics during the COVID19 crisis so that we successfully reach these communities while keeping people safe.

Coronavirus reinforced why a full, fair and accurate census count is so important and critical to the health and well-being of our communities. The amount of federal aid and medical supplies that will be delivered to communities during this crisis was determined in part by the 2010 census — and this year’s census will set the stage for the next decade to come. Let’s work to ensure our most vulnerable populations are fully counted so all in our communities receive the help they need, when they need it. We need to make sure our communities are prepared for the next emergency, let’s get counted today!

Alejandra Y. Castillo is the CEO of the YWCA USA.

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