It is in the collective interest of everyone in Westchester County for all households to complete the census questionnaire in 2020. That is not likely to happen, however, if a question about citizenship is included on the form. In that event, many experts believe that a significant portion of county residents will avoid participating because they fear calling attention to their immigration status. Regardless of how one feels about immigration, it is important that the census not be associated with citizenship. Here’s why.
There are very few governmental tasks that are mandated specifically by the Constitution. One of those is the U.S. Census. Article 1, Section 2 directs that an “enumeration” of every person in every state be made every ten years. An accurate count of the population is essential because a wide range of important decisions are based upon the number of people who live in a particular area.
Many people are aware that the Constitution says the number of legislators allocated to each state in the U.S. House of Representatives is assigned according to a state’s population. What is less well known is that funding for things such as buses, trains, housing, schools, and emergency services are also based on population, and that is determined every ten years by the census.
Moreover, the census provides us with much more information than numbers of people. It captures demographic data, such as age, gender, and ethnicity, as well as information about the occupations, education, and income of people in a given area. All of this information helps decision-makers in government and business allocate the country’s resources in ways that best provide for the people. For example, a new senior housing complex will be built in an area that has a large elderly population and job training programs will be offered in places where there is high unemployment.
Informed decision-making is fundamental to the government’s responsibility to fulfill the grand purpose of the United States, as written in the Constitution’s preamble: to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Notice the inclusion of “our posterity” in the preamble. We must be concerned not only with ourselves, but with our descendants. To provide for the nation’s future, we need an accurate count of all children, whether they were born here or came from someplace else.
The undercounting of young children, defined as those between the ages of birth and four, is a persistent problem (https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/2020/program-management/final-analysis-reports/2020-report-2010-undercount-children-summary-recent-research.pdf). New York is one of five states identified as having the greatest chance of undercounting this age group. Some children are at higher risk of being missed. These include children whom the Census Bureau calls “racial or Hispanic minorities” and those who live in a “complex household,” which is any home not maintained by a nuclear or single-parent family, such as one headed by a grandparent or other relative.
This is not good news for Westchester County. Between 2000 and 2010, the county population grew by 3%, from 923,459 to 949,113 (https://planning.westchestergov.com/population-stats). This growth was largely fueled by an increase in people who identify as Hispanic or Latino. This demographic now constitutes 22% of the total. If children in Hispanic/Latino households are not properly counted, Westchester stands to lose its fair share of funding for services like pre-K and early childhood education, well-baby clinics, nutrition and health screenings, and recreation programs.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon announce its decision on whether a citizenship question is permissible on the upcoming census. I hope the court will not allow it, but whatever happens I hope that everyone who reads this will encourage family, friends, and neighbors to participate in the 2020 census.
Carola Otero Bracco is executive director of the nonprofit, Neighbors Link, and is co-chair of Westchester County’s Complete Count Committee, whose purpose is to create awareness about the census in communities throughout the county.