Unpacking Census 2020: And Why You Should Care as a Housing Advocate

By Emily Strange, Organizing Fellow

In only a few short weeks, we’ll be ushering in a new year and a new decade. After the ball has dropped, the confetti have settled and the 20/20 vision jokes have been overdone, the work of the Census will begin in earnest. While it might seem to be irrelevant to the work of housing advocates on the surface, the Census is central to the work that we do and its results will go on to impact funding and representation for the next 10 years.

The countrywide census effort will be between March 2020 and December 2020. It is constitutionally mandated to count every resident of the United States every ten years, happening in years that end in zero. This is the first article in a series we’ll be doing to unpack the census: what it is, how it will be used, its importance to housing work, and how those experiencing homelessness are going to be counted.

Why is the Census so crucial? For starters, the electoral college votes are allocated among the states based on the Census. That means that the more people from our state are counted, the more electoral votes will be available to our state in deciding future presidential elections. Each state has a number assigned to it based on its population, determined by the Census. For example, the results of the 2010 Census is the reason why Washington currently has 12 electoral votes and Florida has 29. State, local and tribal governments use census information for planning and allocating funds for new school construction, libraries, highway safety and public transportation systems, new roads and bridges, location of police and fire departments and many other projects. Yes, this includes funding for projects around building affordable housing, providing services and ending homelessness. According to the New York Times, the Census determines how congressional seats are apportioned, how state and federal dollars are distributed, where businesses choose to ship products and where they build new stores. The Census is used at the state level to redraw congressional districts and legislative districts, which has powerful implications for elections and representation. For example, the state of Minnesota may potentially lose some electoral college votes, whereas the state of Texas may gain votes.

This Census, there are multiple ways to get counted. The primary way to participate is online, which will be made available in March. Door-knockers and Census workers will still be used as a way to get folks counted who haven’t completed a form online. This is because it is constitutionally mandated to get as complete of a count as possible. Even though it’s law to get as accurate as a count as possible, marginalized populations have been historically and often intentionally left out of the count. Some changes coming to the Census in 2020 seek to change that pattern. For those that are unhoused, The U.S. Census Bureau will work with service providers to ensure that people who are unhoused also are counted. Because folks have the option to complete a Census count online, this means thousands of people who were not counted in the past due to their housing status can now be included.

This decade’s Census count will also be the first to include a count of those who are undocumented. There was an attempt early in the Census planning to include a question about one’s citizenship status. Luckily, this was blocked in the courts. One important thing to note in all of this is that it’s against the law for the Census Bureau and anyone who represents it to share your identity and information with anyone, including ICE. If they do, the perpetrator faces the possibility of five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000. The Census is meant to get an accurate understanding of everyone who’s in the United States, no matter their citizenship status.

Stay tuned for future RAP Newsletters to dive into the Census more, learn about work happening across the state on it, and how you can help organize for an accurate Census 2020. For more about the Census and its importance in the meantime, listen to Jonathan Van Ness’s podcast (particularly to gain more insight on how unhoused people will be counted) and watch this clip from a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode.

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