The Critical Importance of the Census

By Rebecca Niburg #ourvoicesourmaryland Contributor 

The census is an institution that very few people think much about.  It seems to make sense to count our population, know which communities or states are growing or shrinking and what the demographics of our country look like.  The census, however, supports a cornerstone of our democracy – representative government – as well as helps determine resource allocation and support, especially for marginalized and needy populations.  As a result, the census must be designed and administered fairly to allow all to feel comfortable participating. If not done properly, Maryland will face cuts to federal funding and a diminished voice on the federal level.

The Constitution provides that seats in the House of Representatives be apportioned by population to balance out the Senate where each state, regardless of size, has an equal voice.  After the census was taken in both 2000 and 2010, eight states gained representatives and ten states lost representatives as people relocated to different areas of the country. The 2020 Census will reapportion representatives among the different states.  That is why accuracy is so important to our democracy – numbers determine representation.

The questions on the census are required to be submitted by the United States Census Bureau two years prior to the date of the census to Congress for its review.  Questions on the previous census generally ask questions concerning demographics including age, gender, race, relationship to others in the house, income, disability, education level, veteran status, etc, as well as information about the home in which the people live.  In addition to representation in government, these questions become relevant in determining the allocation of resources for government programs.

The questions included thus become critically important.  The Trump Administration has suggested a question regarding citizenship be included in the 2020 Census.  In the current political climate where immigrants feel unsafe due to the Administration’s policies and increased enforcement, even lawful immigrants may decline to participate.  Asking about someone’s citizenship status is not only intensely personal and may evoke deep feelings but may make that person fear targeting of either themselves or their family members based on their response.  If large sections of the population, such as the one in seven Maryland residents that are foreign-born or the estimated 250,000 undocumented residents, refuse to participate in the census, we as a state may lose resources desperately needed as well our representative voice at the federal level in policy and lawmaking.

Conversely, certain questions have not been suggested that could lead to positive results and should they be included.  At the top of the list is a question about sexual orientation and gender identity. Collecting such data would allow for a greater allocation of federal funding for issues specific to these population subsets and strengthen the case for greater civil rights and protections.  For the over 182,000 Marylanders who identify as LGBTQ, this question provides a way to be seen, heard, and protected.

When the census is released, it will be vitally important for us all to work to make sure that everyone is counted and represented fairly, remembering that not all questions must be answered by each person but that it is important that everyone is counted.  That will help to protect all of us in the state.

Additional Readings:

  1. There has been a lot of press about the citizenship question.  Among the recent press hits, there was a Cleveland Plain Dealer story about the census comment period, a New York Times article about the citizenship question, and a Washington Post editorial that was highly critical of the citizenship question.
  1. President Trump nominated Steve Dillingham to be the new Census Bureau Director.  There has not been much written about Dr. Dillingham, but this Science piece provides more than the White House press release. If you know anything about Dr. Dillingham or see new information, let us know.

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.