Get Out the Count: 2020 Census

Get Out the Count: An interview with Gary Bass on the 2020 Census

From your perspective as the head of the Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup, do you think this upcoming census is particularly challenging, and if so, why?

Yes, for a number of reasons. First, Congress decided that funding for the census would be no greater than in 2010, which is equivalent to a cut – and more recently has cut below 2010 levels. This is unprecedented and it’s going to be a major problem. Second, the Census is moving from paper to online. There are concerns about confidentiality. Does the Census Bureau have the IT experience? Another concern is if our focus is on the hard-to-count populations, are we going to be able to reach people? At the same time, this could be an opportunity to use newer technologies like SMS, or social media. Third, in an environment of deportations and a lack of trust in government, people may be unwilling to fill out the census. We have to acknowledge this problem, and struggle as funders to think about how we can help people see how the census could be a form of empowerment. Fourth, legislative proposals adding, for example, immigrant status questions. Finally, the operations of the Census Bureau itself. They are without leadership right now. 

What role can philanthropy play in ensuring a fair and accurate census? How about advocates?

A group of funders have been working with advocates to develop a plan of action to address the census challenges. Funders can support specific projects that are part of this plan, or put money into a pooled fund to support that work, and some do both. This aligned funding mechanism is a way to leverage and coordinate resources so we can be as effective as possible. For advocates and other stakeholders, some are involved in trying to get government resources and policies in place; some are doing outreach to businesses, faith-based groups and others. Soon, we’ll be gearing up for a “get out the count” campaign, which involves national, state, and local funders and advocates to encourage hard to count households to fill out the census. We'll need to develop and test culturally-relevant messages. The local level is where the rubber hits the road. We'll need to find trusted voices, and to support effective outreach, such as door to door canvassing, at community centers, or other approaches that target the hardest to reach.

What successes have you seen so far with funding for a fair and accurate census?​

Advocates have been able to prevent the inclusion of questions about immigration and status on the census form, such as the Higgins amendment. Most of us feel that would mean more people will not fill out the census. However, we can expect the amendment to emerge again. Another, both a success and frustration: funding for the census. Our collective advocacy, including leadership from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is starting to work. The funding situation is getting progressively better, although still not enough. The third victory is how much the groups we’ve been funding have raised public awareness of the census. The issue was just on the frontpage of the New York Times, for instance, as well as in other mainstream media. This is a tribute to philanthropy for providing resources early in the cycle and to the groups for engaging. 

Unbound is particularly concerned about a robust outreach to immigrants in historically undercounted communities. What strategies are being developed to reach these communities and to ensure their safety?

This is a challenging environment, and it may get worse. 2020 is also an election year, which depending on the candidates, may exacerbate the targeting of immigrants and other minorities. This is where we need to identify trusted voices to reach those audiences. That could be some combination of businesses—neighborhood bodegas, barbershops – community based organizations, celebrities, and others.

For funders who are interested in finding out more about the Census Subgroup, please contact Gary Bass.