Whether or not the U.S. Census 2020 includes a citizenship question, it is likely that thousands and maybe even millions of people will not take part in the count due to concerns about how the data will be used or to misinformation about its relevance and importance. Regrettably, the people most likely to remain excluded are also the most disadvantaged, including speakers of languages other than English and their children.
While the U.S. has been focusing its attention on foreign interference in its elections, the accuracy of the census may have considerably more effect on the fairness of future elections. The significance of the census in determining representation in Congress and therefore the allocation of electoral college votes cannot be underestimated. Not only does the exclusion of U.S. residents, be they documented or not, undermine the democracy of the nation, it also results in the misallocation of millions of dollars of federal and other aid.
The results of the census determine congressional representation as well as federal funding for states and communities. More than $675 billion goes toward hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and other social services every year based on census statistics.
The Census Bureau admits that as many as 5% of children under age five were missed in the 2010 census. This not only decreases the money allocated to a state through various federal grants but also reduces some services, including Head Start, which provide early-childhood education to low-income families. The impact is multiplied when an undercount fails to provide enough money, resulting in fewer places in the program, and the underfunding lasts for ten years.
The federal government will officially collect Census 2020 responses online in 13 language options (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese), but paper forms will only be available in English and Spanish. Video and printed guides will be available in 59 non-English languages, and there will be a video in American Sign Language, plus a printed guide in Braille. But there will be fewer census workers going door to door.
Comprehensive advertising campaigns have been scheduled to help get the word out, but marginalized communities are hard to reach through mainstream channels and even harder to convince; however, educators, especially language educators, may be able to play an effective role in persuading students and their families that completing the census will not jeopardize their status, as they have relationships with students and their families, often speak their language, and are usually trusted by limited-English-speaking minorities.
It is in all Americans’ interests to ensure that the census is as accurate as possible and thus adheres to its constitutional mandate, and educators can play a crucial role in helping it happen.