Census 2020: How Is Philanthropy Responding to the Citizenship Question?

The inclusion of a question about citizenship status on the next census has funders and advocates even more worried about getting a full and accurate count in 2020. The concerns add to earlier warnings about low funding, access and data security.

Back in March, the Trump Administration added a question to the census about citizenship status. Opponents worry the question will intimidate hard-to-count populations of color and discourage participation.

Those opposing the question include six former Census Bureau directors and the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, made up of prominent demographers, economists and engineers. Six lawsuits demanding the removal of the question were filed earlier this year and are making their way through the courts. The question also faces growing opposition among many nonprofits and foundations, which rely on accurate census data for their work. Data collected from the census determines more than representation in Congress. It's also used to decide how billions of dollars in federal funding is allocated. 

“If you look at the work that philanthropy does, virtually any field that any of our foundations is engaged in is touched by the census because many of the organizations that we work with receive federal support,” said Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation. He said about the citizenship question: “Those of us who care about a full and fair count are worried that it might suppress the count.”

The foundation committed $1 million to efforts supporting the census in New England earlier this year. Barr is among a growing number of national and regional funders that are targeting funds for such work. 

Grantmakers have more at stake in this battle than many people realize. Beyond determining representation and resource allocation, census data also comes into the play when it's time to evaluate philanthropic work. The data forms the backbone of demographic information that foundations use to evaluate their work. When foundations break down outcomes by race, ethnicity, income bracket or location, that information comes from answers to the census or the American Communities Survey.

“It’s probably the most important dataset in the country that no one’s ever heard about,” said Gary Bass, executive director at the Bauman Foundation. “We all, every funder and every grantee, have probably used census data.”

The importance of census data to everything from votes in Congress to determining whether a philanthropic initiative worked is why a full, fair and accurate count is so crucial. It’s also why some funders are worried about what a question on citizenship could do to dampen participation.

“This is a very big deal,” said Bass. “The citizenship question unnecessarily politicizes the census. By all standards, it will affect the quality of the 2020 census, likely increasing the undercount of immigrants and people of color.”

“If the census is flawed, it will distort democracy over the next decade at a minimum,” said Bass.  “It will mean federal funds will not be directed to areas of greatest need; it will provide incorrect information as we build schools, hospitals, and other local services; it will bias where companies create jobs; and it will unfairly shift political representation in the country.”

Bass leads a coalition of funders supporting the 2020 census through a subgroup of the Democracy Funders Collaborative. The group’s members include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bauman Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.

Bass and the cohort are encouraging foundations to speak out against the question and support other organizations willing to do the same.

Through August 7, the Commerce Department will accept public comments on the 2020 census. Public comments are not considered lobbying. Bass and the collaborative organized a joint letter from more than 220 grantmaking institutions calling for the removal of the citizenship question. Foundations should also send their own letters to the Commerce Department and reach out to grantees to encourage them to do the same, Bass said.

Foundations can also support research on the citizenship question that can be used in the litigation and friend-of-the-court briefs for the six ongoing lawsuits, as well as to educate the public and for advocacy efforts, Bass said. On the funding side, the donor collaborative hopes to raise an additional $35 million for a national get-out-the-count campaign and more for local interventions.

Those involved in this work say that foundations should support trusted, community-based organizations with ties to hard-to-count populations, which include immigrants, refugees, low-income households and people of color. Local organizations are better positioned than big nonprofits to explain to their communities the importance of filling out the census.

That’s the main tactic the Barr Foundation is pursuing as it supports get-out-the-count efforts in New England.

“At the end of the day, people are not going to trust some broad campaign that philanthropy supports that says, ‘Look, it’s important for everyone to be counted,’” Barr’s Canales said.

“They’re going to trust their neighbor, their friend, their family member, their close associate, the neighborhood group that they know, that they go to, that they rely on for other services,” Canales said. “Those are going to be the trusted sources that are going to help somebody understand that it is both important to complete this and that they’re not at risk if they complete this.”

Canales wants to make sure trusted community partners have the capacity to do outreach and act as resources when the time comes. The Barr Foundation committed to supporting the 2020 census before the citizenship question was added. Even then, funders knew they would be gearing up for a tougher fight than usual when it came to ensuring everyone would be counted.

For starters, up until 2018, federal funding for the census had remained relatively flat in contrast to earlier surveys that typically saw a bump in funding in the seventh year of the decade. Increased funding for 2018 and 2019 was included in the omnibus federal spending bill at the end of 2017, but some, like Bass, fear the increases will prove to be too little, too late.

Additionally, 2020 will be the first decade with a largely internet-based census, which raises questions about access. It also opens the door to concerns about data and cyber security. Even a perceived threat could hurt participation.

It’s a tall order, but funders like Barr and Bauman are determined to do what they can. “Funders cannot fix all these problems,” Bass said. “But too much is at stake for us not to do what we can to ensure that the 2020 census properly counts everyone.”

Published by: Inside Philanthropy
Date: August 2, 2018


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