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The Census Questions: Why They Matter and What Was Proposed

COUNCIL OF MICHIGAN FOUNDATIONS | FEB. 5, 2018

As preparations are underway for an upcoming “dress rehearsal” for Census 2020, (there’s only one planned for now due to underfunding on the federal level), decisions are being made right now that could affect an accurate and equitable count in the upcoming census.

The latest news from D.C. is that the Census Bureau’s recommendation regarding adding a combined race and ethnicity question on the census form in 2020 and a new category for those who identify as Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) will not be accepted.

The Census Bureau researched and recommended changes after their numbers showed that nationally Hispanics were undercounted by 1.5 percent and non-Hispanics were overcounted by .8 percent, leading to inaccurate information about populations and the needs of communities which inform decisions about federal funding.

“The Census Bureau has invested years of research and testing, costing millions in taxpayer funds, to determine how to improve the collection of these data for the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau staff had recommended that the 2020 Census use a combined question that yielded higher quality data and more complete responses from respondents, resulting in budget savings during the decennial enumeration,” Arturo Vargas, executive director, The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund said. “The decision to ignore years of research and the expert advice of scientists is a blow to science and the collection of the best data possible.”

As CMF has reported, census data helps determine how more than $600 billion in federal funding will be spent on critical federal programs, such as food assistance, housing vouchers, Head Start, healthcare and much more. This data also helps shape economic development projects as businesses use it to help determine where they should locate or expand.

Without the change:

  • People will have the same options as before of selecting one of the following categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White.
  • There will remain a separate “ethnicity” category which provides Hispanic or Latino categories.

Potential implications:

The Wall Street Journal reports, “The Census Bureau said its tests showed the revision to the race and ethnicity portion would improve accuracy and lower costs, as more people completed the combined race/ethnicity question than in the previous format. When people don’t complete surveys, the bureau must follow up, either by phone or in person. As a last resort, the bureau must fill in missing information using statistical formulas based on similar households nearby.”

The Leadership Conference’s report: Collecting Race and Ethnicity Data in the Census shares that, “many civil rights advocates have urged the Census Bureau and OMB to create a new, separate ethnicity for Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent, who currently are defined as ‘white’ in the OMB Standards.”

Fast facts about the importance of a complete count for Michigan:

  • Michigan stands to lose an estimated $1,800 of federal funds per year for every person who isn’t counted.
  • Michigan’s state budget is comprised of approximately 40 percent federal funding, which means Michigan relies more on federal funding than any state in the country other than Mississippi. 
  • Census data is used to reapportion the 435 U.S. House of Representatives seats among the states. In 2020 Michigan could lose a congressional seat, resulting in a decrease in the number of seats Michigan has in the Electoral College.

As CMF has reported, there are efforts underway in Michigan to encourage a complete count, with the launch of Michigan Nonprofit Association’s (MNA) 2020 Michigan Nonprofit Counts Campaign. With startup funding from W.K. Kellogg Foundation and support from CMF, the campaign will work with nonprofits to support on-the-ground outreach efforts within historically hard-to-count populations to ensure a complete count in Census 2020.

Later this month, MNA will convene the inaugural meeting of the Nonprofit Complete Count Committee, comprised of grass top organizations serving hard-to-count communities. CMF staff member Debbie McKeon will serve on this committee.

“The Nonprofit Complete Count Committee will provide guidance for the campaign, and individual representatives of the committee will educate their networks on the census and mobilize their members to take the lead in get-out-the-count efforts in their local communities,” Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer, MNA said.

CMF is part of the Forum’s Census 2020 Project, through a grant from the Joyce Foundation, the project is aimed to educate philanthropy about the census, increase funding support for the census and mobilize funders to advocate for policy improvements for the census.

Want more?

Connect with the Michigan Nonprofit Counts Campaign.

Check out Census 2020 resources from United Philanthropy Forum.