“Much is at stake when African American communities are undercounted,” said Kareem Butler, 2020 Census project coordinator at the Chicago Urban League. At an event called 2020 census: Barriers to inclusion in African American communities, the Chicago Urban League hosted nonprofit organizations across the city to strategize about messaging and outreach material for African American residents who have historically been undercounted in censuses.
Why does the count matter for nonprofits and those they serve?
An undercount of African American residents in the upcoming census could mean a loss of representation and funding, including one to two congressional seats; about $1.2 billion in federal funding over 10 years; at least $12,000 to $15,000 per decade in Health and Human Services funding along for each uncounted person; and diminished availability of funds for nonprofits. Public infrastructure is also determined by census numbers. Governments and business use the data to determine where to locate schools, transit and retail outlet for communities.
To ensure all are counted and receive their fair share of economic resources, political representation and social services, three key takeaways emerged from the Chicago Urban League event.
Understand who is excluded/undercounted and the barriers that uniquely impact that group. “Sadly, of the top 10 cities with the highest of number of African Americans, Chicago ranks number 2 in percentage of African American in Hard to Count populations,” shared Butler. In addition to certain African American communities, Hard to Count populations include young children, rural residents, other communities of color, immigrants, individuals experiencing homelessness and others. Many of these communities are undercounted for multiple reasons, such as living in housing units not on the Census Bureau’s Master Address File, living in a multi-unit building or in complex households, moving frequently and experiencing language barriers.
Specific attitudinal barriers such as distrust, apathy and privacy concerns were also discussed as reasons African American communities in Chicago are undercounted. Kareem shared, “While there is apprehension among African American communities regarding census data, how it will be used, who will have access to it and concerns about the privacy of sensitive information, it is important to recognize that the degree of these barriers might be different across communities. African American communities in Chicago are not monolithic.”
Nonprofit representatives during the session recommend creating a community culture assessment or using an existing community assessment tool to uncover the unique barriers that impact different neighborhoods.
Create solutions that directly address the barriers unique to that community or neighborhood. Personalizing messages based on Hard to Count population type is critical. Those who have completed the census before might need to be re-oriented to or re-educated about the process. Others who are unfamiliar with the new process of completing the census through mail and online might respond to social media messaging.
“It is important to meet people where they are and talk specifically about what the census is, how to complete it and the ways the census data will impact their lives. We need to give each group that comes through our organization targeted and tangible examples of where the benefits of being counted show up and talk to them in a way that resonates with what they are going through,” shared Angela Brown, Sinai Community Institute’s system director. Brown works with seniors on Chicago’s West Side and stressed the importance of framing the conversation around census data on matters that impact seniors, particularly their concerns around Medicaid.
Where a message on Medicaid benefits might land well with senior populations, other populations will respond to different priorities. For example, the 18-25-year-old African American male population includes residents who may have had higher levels of contact with the criminal justice system or are apathetic about the census process and see it as pointless. This group might need tangible examples of how being counted benefits programs that support individuals who were recently incarcerated.
Champion the role that nonprofits can play in a fair and accurate count. Whether nonprofits are framing the message of the 2020 census as active empowerment and “claiming resources and representation that belong to the people,” or resistance to “negative rhetoric around immigration and communities of color coming from the current White House administration,” they are well positioned in communities with Hard to Count populations. As a low-cost measure, no new program needs to be developed, considering the everyday contact nonprofits have with communities most at risk of being undercounted. According to the Nonprofit Vote, “Those nonprofits, who have already established relationship with the communities they serve, can act as a powerful vehicle for education about the importance of the census. When the message to be counted comes from a trusted entity, people are more likely to participate.”
The 2020 census is around the corner. As part of the nonprofit community, the Cradle to Career Network has an “inherent interest in ensuring that our communities have access” to economic resources, political representation and social services impacted by the census. Consider how you can use your position as a trusted entity in the community to ensure everyone is counted!