By Tabitha Stickel Ph.D. Candidate, Lifelong Learning & Adult Education Research Assistant, Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy &Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy Penn State University
The Census population count directly affects your ability to make your voice heard on the national level, both in Congress and in presidential elections.
How does the Census affect my representation in Congress?
There are 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Your
state’s representatives are your voice in Congress. Do you know how many seats your
The total number of seats—435—always stays the same. Those
435 seats are meant to be an accurate representation of the population distribution
across the 50 states, so each seat represents the same number of people. For
example, in 2010, the year of the last Census, the counted population meant
there was one U.S. representative for every 710,767 people.
The number of seats that your state has in the House of
Representatives depends on your state’s population as determined by the Census.
The number of seats for each state, called the state’s apportionment, can
change every 10 years if the Census shows that the state’s population count has
changed. For example, in Arizona the population has increased over the past 50
years, so the number of representatives for the state has more than doubled,
from four in 1970 to nine in 2010. In fact, the 2010 count shifted 12
Congressional seats among 18 states.
With regard to apportionment, an inaccurate Census population
count within your state means two things:
People in your state who go uncounted are not represented
equally in Congress
Your state’s population as a whole is not represented
In some cases, an inaccurate Census
count for your state might also mean that your state loses a seat in the House
of Representatives, or misses out on gaining an additional one.
What about presidential elections?
The Census population count also affects your state’s representation
in the Electoral College (the group of people who formally select the winning presidential
candidate). The number of electors for each state equals the total number of representatives
and senators from that state. For example, Arizona, with nine representatives
and two senators, has 11 Electoral College votes. The number of electors
assigned to each state can make a big difference in presidential elections. For
example, in 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency with only four more electoral
votes than Al Gore.
What if I’m not eligible to vote?
The Census counts more than just registered voters. Census counts include other groups that cannot vote, like minor children, legal residents, and even undocumented individuals. The apportionment—your state’s number of representatives in Congress—is based on the total population count for your state. So even if you are not eligible to vote, participating in the Census gives you a way to participate in the U.S. political process. For all people within the United States, participating in the Census is a unique opportunity to have your political voice represented in the U.S. government.
As part of the Pledge To Be Counted! campaign, today NCL is initiating a series of short blog posts on the theme How Does the Census Affect Me and My Community?
Each post in the series will address a specific aspect of community life that is affected by Census data, showing why a full and accurate count is important for community members. The posts will provide clear information that adult educators, Census ambassadors, and others can use to encourage Census completion in their communities.
Watch for the first posts in the series later this week!
NCL has made the 2020 Census its priority issue for
2019-2020. Why? Because, as our members know, an accurate and fair count is
essential for adult learners, the programs that serve them, and the communities
where they live and work.
Census population counts determine how Congressional districts are drawn, and thus how populations are represented. Businesses use Census data to guide decisions about where to build facilities that can provide jobs. And, according to the Census Bureau, Census data “help determine how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and communities every year.” That funding supports hospitals, housing programs, fire departments, food and nutrition programs, road construction … and adult education, through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA, Title II of WIOA).
Why do adult
learners need a particular focus?
NCL’s goal in focusing
it work on the 2020 Census is to ensure as full a count as possible of adult
learners and their families and codependents. Many of these residents fall into
one or more of the groups that the Census Bureau has identified as “hard to
count” (and therefore at risk of an undercount). “Hard to count” populations
include low-income households, foreign-born persons, people of color, rural
residents, and young children.
An undercount of these populations could result in reduced resource allocations and reduced political representation for their communities. By educating adult learners about the 2020 Census and encouraging them to complete it and to share information in their communities, adult education programs can support a full and fair count of the population groups their learners represent. In addition, as trusted institutions, adult education programs and libraries are well positioned to reach the communities they serve with accurate, timely information about the nature and significance of the Census and guidance that helps adults with limited literacy or English language skills avoid Census-related scams and fraud that may target them.
What are the challenges?
For 2020, the
Census Bureau has made changes to its procedures for supporting Census
completion. These changes are likely to have negative effects on response rates
for adults with limited reading and digital literacy skills:
The Bureau is emphasizing online response. In most cases, the initial mailing will invite recipients to respond online. Those who lack online access or have limited digital skills will need support to follow up online, and guidance to understand that they can also respond on paper or by phone.
The Bureau will not provide instructional materials specifically for use in adult education programs. While the Bureau plans to release educational materials for K-12 students through its Statistics in Schools program, it has no plans to develop materials geared to adult learners as it did in 2000 and 2010. Adult educators will be on their own to adapt or create activities and materials that help their learners understand and respond to the Census and avoid potential Census-related fraud and scams.
In addition, because the Bureau does not yet have an established budget for fiscal 2020, it has had to limit its plans to provide face-to-face support for Census completion. In prior Census years, the Bureau provided for Questionnaire Assistance Centers at libraries and community centers. The American Library Association described the importance of QACs in a February 2019 letter to Bureau Director Steven Dillingham:
hosted more than 6,000 Questionnaire Assistance Centers and Be Counted sites in
the 2010 Census … Libraries offer ideal locations for Questionnaire Assistance
Centers in many hard-to-count communities: 99% of Census tracts with the lowest
self-response rates in 2010 are located within five miles of a public library. Furthermore,
many residents with lower Internet connectivity or skills will turn to their
local library to access the new Internet Self-Response option, and 98% of
tracts with poor Internet access are located within five miles of a public
However, for 2020 the Bureau may not be able to support QACs, given the current uncertainties about its funding for fiscal 2020. Because the Senate will not begin work on the 2020 budget until it reconvenes on September 10, passage of the final budget is not likely to happen before fiscal 2020 begins on October 1. As a result, Congress will need to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until a final budget is passed. The challenge this presents for the Census Bureau is outlined in a case memo developed by the Census Task Force:
“Most FY 2020 appropriations bills will not be finalized until later in the fall (at best), well after the October 1 start date to the fiscal year. … The Census Bureau needs to know at the start of the fiscal year how much money it will have for the entire year, so it knows what efforts it can afford to undertake. Without funding certainty at the start of the year, the Census Bureau could decide it must curtail certain important activities — from outreach and advertising to cyber-security steps to hiring a full complement of census field staff — to prevent a funding shortfall later in the fiscal year.”
You can act at both the individual and the programmatic level.
1. Advocate: Email or call your Senators and
Representatives to promote inclusion in the Continuing Resolution of a full year funding anomaly for the 2020 Census
of $7.5 billion, as part of Periodic Censuses and Programs account funding of
This is the stakeholder-recommended funding level that was included in the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 3055) that the House passed earlier this year. This funding anomaly, if passed, will allow the Census Bureau to plan for the full year of activities and carry out activities that ensure a fair and accurate count. For more information, read the case memo developed by the Leadership Conference’s Census Task Force and share it as part of your advocacy.
2. Participate: Become informed about how the Census is administered, who is counted, what questions are asked (and not asked), how the Census Bureau maintains information confidentiality, and more. Use Census Bureau fact sheets and infographics for information. Plan to complete the Census yourself. Here is the Census Bureau’s timeline for 2020:
3. Educate: Understand your adult learners’ concerns about the Census and preferred response method (online, paper, phone, in person). Use the NCL Census resource list to plan ways to incorporate relevant digital literacy skills and content-based instruction at individual class or wider programmatic levels. The NCL list contains links to teaching/learning materials and community outreach materials developed by a number of organizations, and is updated regularly. In addition, this fall NCL member organizations will be developing teaching materials and related activities specifically for use in ABE/ESL contexts.
4. Stay Up to Date: Throughout the 2019-2020 program year, NCL members will be providing topical webinars and conference presentations to address specific aspects of the Census process and share knowledge and resources designed for adult learners and adult education practitioners. Webinars and conference presentations will be listed here on the NCL website and announced through the NCL listserv with links to available slide decks and recordings.
As we look forward to Adult Education and Family Literacy Week later this month, please join the NCL in advocating and working for a fair and accurate count for #Census2020!
As part of its Census-related activity, the NCL has recently become a partner with Census Counts, a collaborative effort that is part of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The partnership includes access to many useful resources and news updates, as well as participation in the Census Task Force. Here are two news updates of interest:
1. The Supreme Court will likely take up the citizenship question on Friday of this week. See this blog post for more.
Several bills on the Census have been introduced in the 116th Congress.
Two that merit special attention are HR 732, the Census IDEA Act
(introduced by Representative Maloney, 57 cosponsors) and S 358, the
Census IDEA Act (introduced by Senator Schatz, 18 cosponsors). For a
full list of all the bills that have been introduced and links to the
bill texts, see the current issue of Democracy Download, the newsletter of Common Cause.
Feel free to read and use the Census Counts resources, and consider signing the #SaveTheCensus pledge!