A person can learn a lot from U.S. Census data. It’s an especially useful tool for genealogy buffs. With just a few clicks I found things like my great-grandfather was a chipper in a steel mill, one of the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the plant, or the dates when my great-grandparents became naturalized citizens. I learned that census gatherers recorded information like whether the person spoke English or not or how much their house was worth. By today’s standards this sounds a bit intrusive, but they’re all things that help to round out a family history. The Census has another more important and consequential function, namely ensuring that each community gets the correct number of representatives and that public funds get distributed equitably.
The United States Census is conducted every ten years as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, part of which states: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers ...” The first census was taken in 1790 under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. There have been 22 since that time. Management of the census falls under the Bureau of the Census, which is part of the Commerce Department. The last count was in 2010. According to the data gatherers the 2010 Census found the U.S. population to be 308,745,538. (By current estimates, it’s now close to 327 million.)
So who gets counted? Individuals living in U.S. residential structures – check. Americans and their dependents living overseas who are federal employees (military and civilian) – check. Citizens – check. Non-citizen legal residents – check. Non-citizen long-term visitors – check. Undocumented immigrants – check.
That last one is where the trouble starts. Remember how I said the Census falls under the auspices of the Commerce Department? Last time I looked (one can never be too sure) the person heading that department is one Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., banker, billionaire, and grifter extraordinaire. Ross’s political ties range wide and deep on both sides of the aisle, his financial dealings with the Russians have raised eyebrows, he failed to divest of his interests when he came on board with the Trump administration, and now he’s coming after our census.
It’s been 70 years since the Census has had a citizenship question, but Wilbur wants to change all that by adding that question to the 2020 Census. He claimed, under oath to Congress mind you, that his motivation was to provide better data on eligible voters to the Justice Department in order that the Voting Rights Act could be better enforced. But attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, the ACLU, and immigrants rights groups said not so fast. In a lawsuit brought in New York, the aforementioned entities contend that the true intent of the citizenship question is to intimidate people of color and cause an undercount in minority areas, all in order to help Republicans. “We are seeing aggressive efforts to change the rules to entrench one political party in power regardless of the support they receive from voters,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Click here to read Rolling Stone's stinging essay on Wilbur Ross.
The citizenship question is just one threat to an accurate census count. Other challenges include the new on-line format, which raises a whole host of issues for low-income communities and the elderly, and the fact that Congress, true to form, has limited the amount of funding available for the administration of the Census.
In response to these threats, our partners at the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) are calling for a public fund to make sure our state gets an accurate count. Click here to read their analysis.
2020 is not just a year we choose a new president. It’s a census year. Let’s make sure all Pennsylvanians stand and be counted.
posted by Amy Levengood
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