The COVID-19 pandemic has sequestered millions of Americans in their homes, and many working or living remotely are in need of activities to pass the time.
This is the perfect opportunity to fill out the Census.
Like everything significant in life, it is fun, it is sexy, and it is required by law.
The first Census in 1790 had only six questions, and inhabitants were categorized as free white men aged 16 or older, free white men 16 or younger, white women, “all other free persons,” and slaves.
Since then, of course, the Census has broadened its horizons.
Chicago Therapy Collective Community Outreach Specialist Elise Malary noted representation was a crucial component to any effort to aggregate data. “One of the most important things women can gain is visibility, especially women living with intersecting identities—we have to fight to be seen and heard, and the Census is a way to be both.”
More than $675 billion in federal funds were distributed based on U.S. Census Bureau data for 2015, according to a 2017 bureau analysis.
That is the equivalent of five Jeff Bezoses.
The funding included money earmarked for housing, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, infrastructure, and every social program that the population relies on.
America’s first digital Census this year will also determine where critical federal funding is provided for states and local communities. This year is noteworthy in several ways (not least of which is COVID-19 and the problems it raises for door-to-door Census workers.) The bureau will provide video guides in American Sign Language (with closed or open captioning), braille and large print versions of the questionnaire, telephone access for the hearing impaired, and deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals will be able to request a visit from a Census taker familiar with ASL.
Also, the Trump administration’s citizenship question was blocked by a U.S. judge. So there are silver linings to every COVID-19 cloud.
The digital versions to the Census are new, and a welcome addition, according to disability advocates.
“I believe the Census wants to hear from us,” said Beth Finke, featured NPR commentator and award-winning author and teacher. “When the 2010 Census was sent out, there were no braille forms. There were no large-print forms. You could not call a phone number to answer the Census. This year, it is available online, and it is going to be available in braille and large print or you can phone in to do it.”
Finke, who lost her sight before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, noted she was “tickled” to fill out the 2020 Census by herself. “Part of the fight to get the ADA passed was because there was this attitude that ‘not that many people have disabilities.’ But living through that as a 30-year-old and living with it after it was passed—all of us were at home. We were not seen. We were not part of the living, breathing community; we are American citizens and want to be part of it all.”
The Census is also a critical issue for representation. While women make up the actual silent majority of this country, representing 50.8 percent of the population (according to those ever-valuable Census figures), and despite outnumbering men in the U.S. workforce for the first time since 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median wage for workers in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2019 was $936 per week or $48,672 per year. In 2017, the median salary for full-time working women was $41,512. Figures from 2017 also indicated most women held roles as secretaries and administrative assistants.
While the Census is not a cure, it is crucial for allocating funds to address the gender gap and support services.
“When you look at data, women tend to be primary caretakers,” Easterseals National Office President and CEO Angela Williams said. “Women are the caregivers of a loved one with a disability, women are the mothers of a child with special needs, women are daughters of a parent with a disability; there are so many intersections within life where women play critical roles, and that includes caregivers.”
Representation is at the root of what the Census is and what it was designed for. Voting representation is based on Census data, as is the enforcement of voting rights laws. It will shape funding for advocates, elected officials, and community leaders, and it will allocate the use of federal tax dollars.
This would be a critical issue in any situation, but its importance is magnified during both an election year and in the midst of a national pandemic that has minimized social services and benefits across the country.
“My sense is that we are seeing a divide in the country,” Williams said. “There is an economic divide—an access to services divide, and people are getting left behind. It seems to have amplified over the last couple years, so it is important to take affirmative action to make sure people living with disabilities and others that are not as well-connected or need the services have those needs met. That is where I feel there are voices coalescing around caring and compassion for others. That is a humane perspective we are taking; we have to do something to make sure that those who are threatened have a voice.”
To be seen is essential to be counted. The Census is a federally-recognized tool to be both.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau