By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The 2020 census is still more than five years away, but as the United States Census Bureau prepares for the crucial count of American households, civil rights groups are weighing in and offering recommendations to improve the accuracy of the process.
Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights groups, said that the 2020 census may seem distant, but the census bureau is in the process of making critical decisions about the design, methodology, and content of the census that will have a dramatic impact on the accuracy of the count in minority communities.
“The census is the most powerful tool that diverse communities have to secure equal access to the benefits of American life,” said Henderson. “If your community needs a bus stop, hospital bed, polling place, or school, or wants to adequately represented at all levels of government, it will be at a severe disadvantage if it wasn’t accurately counted by the census.”
Henderson added: “Given how much is at stake for our communities, the Census Bureau must get it right.”
The Leadership Conference recently released a report titled, “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America.” It traced key laws and policies that relied on race and ethnicity to establish violations and address discriminatory practices.
The report discussed the Census Bureau’s research and testing programs, how race and ethnicity data are used to protect civil rights and the strengths and weaknesses of the bureau’s current data collection efforts.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, author of the report and a consultant to the Leadership Conference, said that race and ethnicity data are essential, irreplaceable tools for administering anti-discrimination laws across all institutional sectors.
“Ensuring equality in access to education, employment, public contracting, housing and healthcare and ending disparities in the criminal justice system depends substantially on census data,” said Lowenthal.
Lowenthal noted that the Census Bureau does not capture detailed national origin data for Blacks or Whites.
Lowenthal also said that civil rights experts often point to a lack of comparability between census data and data collected by other federal agencies, including the Education Department and the Labor Department, which makes evaluating trends much harder. The researcher added that race and ethnicity data for people who are currently incarcerated is often inaccurate and incomplete.
“Census data are central to understanding disparities in the criminal justice system, helping policymakers, law enforcement agencies, community leaders, and advocates devise remedies aimed at restoring equitable treatment and fostering constructive outcomes,” stated the report. “While criminal justice laws in the United States are neutral on their face, both enforcement and outcomes of many laws are substantially biased against certain race and ethnicity groups.”
Prison gerrymandering is just one of those practices that disproportionately affects Blacks.
“Prison gerrymandering occurs when states and localities draw representational districts that incorporate a significant percentage of people who are incarcerated and cannot vote, a circumstance stemming from the Census Bureau’s policy of counting all people at their “usual place of residence” on Census Day (April 1 of a decennial census year),” the report explained. “For example, prisons in rural areas of a state often house disproportionate numbers of inmates from far-away urban communities, resulting in some districts with far fewer eligible voters and undermining the principle of one-person, one-vote embodied in the U.S. Constitution.”
According to a 2012 report by Demos, non-partisan public policy and research group, “in the 2000 Census, almost one-third of the persons credited as having “moved” into upstate New York during the previous decade were persons sentenced to prison terms in upstate prisons.”
Henderson said that the Leadership Conference and other groups that are pushing census reform are deeply concerned about prison gerrymandering.
Henderson said that those rural communities where the prisons are located are often allowed to count individuals who happen to be in prisons located in their towns and benefit from the inflated population numbers. Henderson called the practice “inappropriate and improper” and said that his coalition is fighting to change it.
“Because so much of the Department of Justice’s budget is being consumed by prison incarceration-related activity, any data from the census that gives us a more particularized view of what we’re dealing with in terms of our population has great implications for those policies,” said Henderson.
The report offered 17 recommendations for the 2020 census from enhanced testing and analysis of existing data to improving communication between the Census Bureau and the civil rights community, ensuring that the same race and ethnicity options are available for the paper questionnaire and the proposed Internet survey, and adding a new ethnicity category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
“Given the unprecedented growth in our nation’s diversity, it’s more important than ever that the next census collect detailed data that illuminate the lives of all Americans and give policymakers the tools necessary to understand and address the disparate needs of all communities” said Henderson.
Washington lawmakers just made reaching that goal a tougher climb when they passed a 2015 budget that slashed funding for planning the 2020 census by 50 percent.
“The Census Bureau’s funding level is extremely disappointing, essentially cutting the funding ramp-up for 2020 Census planning by half,” said Lowenthal in a statement about the budget deal. “2015 is a critical year for field testing that will inform the design selection for the next census. Congress wants a radically different census—accurate but lower cost—but it isn’t willing to invest in the groundwork needed to reach that goal. I think lawmakers are putting the accuracy of the next census at grave risk.”