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Don’t be Fooled: When We Don’t Fill Out the Census, the Joke is On Us

Updated: Apr 22


by Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq.


“…When you hurt me, you hurt yourself Try not to hurt yourself When you play me, you play yourself Don’t play yourself…” ~Beyonce, Don’t Hurt Yourself It’s not often I get to quote Queen Bey in an article about civic engagement and community development. But today is April 1st, more commonly referred to as April Fool’s Day – a time dedicated to playing jokes on family and friends. April 1st also Census Day, a day when organizations go all out to ensure their communities are informed about filling out the census so they get their fair share of resources and political power. When communities of African descent don’t fill out the census, however, the joke is on us and we end up playing ourselves for the fool. A low census count in Black communities hurts us - and only us. The Census is a survey that the government is required to take every 10 years. Its questions are basic: What community do you live in? How many people live with you? How old are you? What’s your gender? What race or nationality are you? Do you rent or own your home? What’s your phone number? As required by the Constitution, the answers to those Census questions will determine the government’s spending decisions for more than $700 billion (with a b) dollars each year for the next 10 years. Your census responses are fed into federal formulas that determine how much money our  communities will receive for services like hospitals and health care services; schools, educators and after school programs; SNAP and WIC; transportation and road development; affordable housing and senior services; small business programs and so much more. They are also used to determine how many political representatives your community will receive to fight for you.


When your community has a low census response rate, it means you’re literally leaving billions of dollars a year on the table (billions of dollars that another community will scoop up). A low census response rate also means that you end up with fewer political representatives than you’re entitled to – which means less votes to push the legislative agendas you need for your community to thrive. Centuries of racial oppression and state sanctioned violence, have rendered communities of African descent suspicious of government, which has often led to very low census response rates. After hearing me speak about the Census on The Karen Hunter Show on Sirius XM's Urban View Network, one person told me that during the last Census, she actively avoided filling out the form. When a census worker came around to ask her the census questions, she was so scared that she chased him out of her apartment complex because she thought the Census was a tool used by the Man to hurt Black people.While government mistrust is understandable given the painful legacy of our pasts, when it comes to the Census, non-participation causes us decades of harm. Low census response rates in our communities mean that we lock ourselves into a lack of resources and political power – decades at a time. Which means, when we don’t fill out the Census, the joke is on us. Welcome to Wakandaville Let’s say you live in Wakandaville, a small Black community of 100 families. According to the Census formulas, communities of that size should each get $100/child for school funds, $100 for senior services, $100 for transportation services, $100 for healthcare and 10 political representatives. Unfortunately, while Wakandaville is an amazing place, the people who live there are very fearful about answering Census questions. As a result, they have a low community Census response rate of only 40%. This means that only 40 of the 100 families who live there fill out the Census. So when the government enters those responses into their federal formulas, Wakandaville is only going to receive enough education money, senior services, transportation and health care services for 40 families. Their low response rate also means they will only receive 4 out of the 10 political representatives that they are entitled to. In September, all 100 families will send their children to school. Unfortunately, since only 40 families filled out the Census, those 100 children will only have a budget that is appropriate to educate 40 of them. Which means they will have overcrowded classrooms, insufficient after school and college preparation programs, no guidance counselors or school social workers.


All 100 families have seniors who like to attend their local senior center for activities. Sadly, their local senior center will only have enough funding for 40 of them to participate in those activities. Their bid whist, spades and bingo game nights will be cut, the medical staff will be decreased and their Access-a-Ride program will be so underfunded that they will have to wait hours for  transportation. Each of these 100 families drive cars or take buses and need safe roads. They have family members who need safe subway stations so they can travel to and from work and school. But in Wakandaville, their Census response rate was so low, their subway station looks like it’s falling apart. The bus stations are dilapidated and the potholes on their streets are so huge, they look more like sinkholes. Our 100 families need access to quality health care – both before, during and after COVID-19 hits their community. However, their community’s low Census response rate led to the closure of Wakandaville’s only hospital. While a few pop up health care centers recently opened up, none of them specialize in treatment for diabetes, fibroids, prostate cancer or high blood pressure, the community’s chief health concerns. And, none have the capacity to help usher this community through the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic. Our People Are Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge When you’re familiar with the history of racial oppression in this country, it’s easy to understand why Black communities resist filling out the Census. After hearing me speak about the Census on Sirius XM, one person told me that during the last census, she actively avoided filling out the form. When a census employee came around to ask her the census questions, she was so scared that she chased him out of her apartment complex because she thought the Census was a tool used by the Man to hurt Black people. It’s not our fault that we have this fear of government. The reality is, we only got the right to register to vote without the risk of being killed for it in 1965. So if you know someone 56 years or older, they’re literally older than one of the pillars of integration. That said, we cannot be imprisoned by our history – we have to use it so that we empower our present and future.

An accurate Census count can mean the difference between communities that are thriving and those that are suffering, and between life and death. The Center for Law and Social Justice has spent the past 2 years working so hard to educate New York City’s communities of African descent about the 2020 Census. You can fill the Census out online at my2020census.gov, you can call the Census Bureau at 1-844-330-2020 and fill it out over the phone or you can mail in the paper form. No matter which method you choose, please choose to count everyone in your family. Help us make sure we have every resource we need to thrive. Support our effort to get access to the political power we’re entitled to.


On April Fools, let’s be sure to not play ourselves, our elders, our children, or our future.

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