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Karthick Ramakrishnan: 2020 Census effort brought together diverse organizations to build stronger communities
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Karthick Ramakrishnan: 2020 Census effort brought together diverse organizations to build stronger communities

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Karthick Ramakrishnan

Karthick Ramakrishnan

The 2020 Census count ended prematurely last week. To put it more precisely, the U.S. Census Bureau stopped counting Americans after 2:59 a.m. Pacific Time on Oct. 16, even though it had previously declared that it would need until Oct. 31 to ensure an accurate and complete count.

This news came as a shock to many of us in California who were planning on making a final, two-week sprint to ensure a complete count. I serve as the director of the Inland Empire Census Complete Count Committee, a collaborative effort that includes dozens of community organizations, government agencies, businesses and research partners united in ensuring a complete and accurate count for a region that has more than 4.6 million residents.

Here, as in many other parts of the country, support for an accurate Census cuts across racial and partisan lines. Our Complete Count Committee is co-chaired by Janis Rutherford, a white, female county supervisor from San Bernardino County and V. Manuel Perez, a Hispanic male county supervisor from Riverside County. Even though county elections in California are nonpartisan, Rutherford self-identifies as a Republican and is part of her county’s Republican supermajority, while Perez is one of two Democrats serving alongside two Republicans and a Libertarian. Notably, both counties passed unanimous resolutions in late 2018 declaring their support for a complete and accurate Census count in the region.

The Census Bureau has justified the Oct. 15 end date by noting that it has close to a complete count, with 99.9% of households counted nationwide and more than 98% counted in every state in the country. As demography experts have noted, however, these figures are misleading because they have relied heavily on shortcuts such as designating residential units as vacant without confirming whether or not people lived there on the Census designated date of April 1. The Census Bureau is also relying more heavily on “response by proxy” from neighbors, which the agency has previously estimated to have a 7% error rate.

Concern about a flawed count is high not only among voting rights and civil rights groups, but a much larger network of organizations involved in 2020 Census outreach. This includes businesses who depend on reliable Census data for accurate market data, as well as tribal governments, local governments, nonprofit service providers and local chambers of commerce. These groups are concerned not only about underinvestment in their communities, but also about jeopardizing the next decade of survey data and market intelligence reports that depend on an accurate 2020 Census count.

Perhaps that is where we can take some solace. Despite intense party polarization and deep racial and social divisions in our country, the 2020 Census effort brought together a diverse set of leaders and organizations from across the country. The U.S. Census Bureau invested heavily in staff time to build thousands of Census complete count committees across the country. States and private foundations also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Census outreach, while business, government agencies, and nonprofits spent innumerable hours working together to ensure a complete count.

In the process, these diverse coalitions have laid the foundation for building stronger communities. I can attest to this from personal experience. In our region, Census partners have adapted their work to help communities respond to the challenges of COVID-19, and are now deepening their collaborative work to build a more equitable and sustainable economy.

We also organized a national event with the Funders’ Committee on Civic Participation in September 2020, where we found many other communities that are similarly growing stronger because of their Census collaborations. These include Native American communities that were included for the first time in more diverse urban coalitions, immigrant communities that found a stronger voice in planning the future of Houston metro, and funders in New York and South Carolina that strengthened their statewide efforts to be more racially inclusive and regionally inclusive.

Looking ahead, we can act collectively to ensure that the legacy from the 2020 Census is not an entirely dismal one. Yes, we can expect the current set of lawsuits over the Census count to continue, and many more lawsuits to come in fights over 2021 redistricting and flawed data. Many of us involved in Census outreach, however, remain optimistic that all of the relationships and partnerships we have built over the past two years have not been in vain. Instead of dismantling the powerful and diverse coalitions that have been built, we are creating a network called Census Legacies. Hopefully, we can maintain and grow our Census coalitions, and continue to unify and serve our communities in the face of pandemic and polarization, and build stronger and more equitable communities in the decade to come.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, karthick@ucr.edu. He is founder of Census Legacies, a diverse coalition that seeks to build inclusive communities on the foundations of Census 2020 outreach.

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