By Khalil Abdullah
Like a massive Atlantic wave quietly swelling, then forcefully breaking on the shores of the Outer Banks, controversies about the 2020 Census are disrupting North Carolina’s status quo well before the final count results two years from now.
“I feel an undercount coming,” said Octavia Rainey, “a national undercount, as well as one in North Carolina, certainly one in Raleigh because of an undercount of the Black community and other minorities.”
Undercounts occur for a variety of reasons and they matter because federal money and its subsequent disbursement to states, counties and cities, flow as a result of the collective responses to those individual census inquiries.
The costs of nonparticipation will be high, according to Dr. Rebecca Tippett, founding director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill. “The estimated average loss in federal dollars, annually, for every individual missed in North Carolina is $988. Those people are still showing up in programs and they still need to be served.” Unfortunately, by law, people who don’t respond to the Census cannot be added in later through estimated counts, Tippett said.
The Census Bureau uses HTC, Hard to Count, as shorthand to designate subsets of the population that often present obstacles that impede census accuracy. Rural communities, communities where English is the second language, or those that lack access to the Internet at a time when self-reporting over the internet is being allowed for the first time, are among examples of areas likely to have diminished Census participation.
“In North Carolina, 16 percent of African Americans, 17 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of Asians live in Hard-To-Count areas, according to the Census Bureau,” wrote Adam Sotak in a 2017 article on North Carolina’s stake in the Census.
Sotak, the public engagement director for NC Child, a children’s advocacy organization, attended a recent media briefing on the Census held in Raleigh and sponsored by the Leadership Conference Education Fund in partnership with Ethic Media Services and the N.C. Counts Coalition. The event brought together media from North Carolina’s diverse communities with advocates and experts on Census issues.
Octavia Rainey, a Raleigh native, is a reporter for The Carolinian, an African American-owned newspaper that has been championing its readers’ concerns for nearly 80 years. Her perspective on the Census is informed by her battles to preserve home ownership and to promote affordable housing. She has strongly held opinions about the city’s failure to contain the wave of gentrification that is displacing low- and middle-income residents, often African Americans, with new homeowners and renters, “mostly White,” she says.
“Where is the money?” Rainey pointedly asked, referring to the current underfunding of the cost of counting.
Typically, funds are available to hire locals to assist in the door-to-door canvassing to reach those who otherwise would be missed or those who failed to respond to other forms of outreach.
Rainey detects a growing disquiet among African Americans in the promises of the better quality of life Census revenue is supposed to bring. Such allocations funnel money to schools, hospitals, clinics and infrastructure, but Rainey said people often don’t think they have benefited enough from the $16 billion funneled to North Carolina due to 2010 Census results.
That sense of unease is shared by Wanda Hunter, who, like Rainey, is an African American born and raised in Raleigh. “The same attitudes stop people from voting: ‘How is this going to help me,’ or ‘It never changes anything,’ are the same attitudes that are going to make it hard to get people to participate in the Census,” Hunter said. “And how are they going to count those people who lost their homes to gentrification, the people who are living in a homeless shelter or under a bridge?”
Hunter worked as a school food server before providing bookkeeping services to Blueprint NC, another NC Counts Coalition member. She said that learning that the number of homeless children in Raleigh’s public schools is on the rise has been especially upsetting.
Hunter is now financial manager of the organization’s Raleigh office and has been demanding police accountability, an issue that has been in the spotlight lately. “I’m a single mother with three children. I want my children to know that I was on the battlefield for them,” Hunter said. She has been insistent about the need for African Americans to vote to reach their social and political goals and understands the importance of them being counted in the Census. Full participation, however, will be difficult to achieve, she believes, partly because of the pressing demands of daily survival.
And now, if a question about one’s citizenship status is added, she fears that many Latinos and Asian Americans will not participate as well. Rainey and Hunter support advocates from Latino and Asian American communities who oppose adding the question about U.S. citizenship on the next Census form.
“We’ve really seen an increase in fear [in our communities], an increase in the experience of hostility under the current administration,” said Angeline Echeverria, executive director of El Pueblo Inc. that works to improve conditions for Latinos in Raleigh’s Wake County.
“We know that there are always challenges in getting community members who live in mixed-status families, who might have friends and family members who are undocumented, to participate in anything that the government is initiating, including the Census,” she said.
But adding the untested question into an anti-immigrant climate racheted up by the administration, prompted El Pueblo to join the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s lawsuit against the Trump administration.
At the briefing, skeptics of the lawsuit’s potential to succeed believe that, regardless of the court’s ruling, the trust between immigrant communities and the federal government has been irreparably damaged. Cynics went one step further, arguing that the purpose of adding the citizenship question was to politicize the immigration debate.
“People aren’t stupid,” one attendee said.
Chavi Koneru, executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said that adding the citizenship question will make her organization’s job harder to convince people to participate because some, particularly non-citizens, will wonder if they will become a target.
“Asian Americans have been the fastest growing racial group in North Carolina,” Koneru said, but the breadth of its diversity includes “20 different ethnicities, including several significant refugee populations from Southeast Asia.” The net result is a vast range of cultural and societal experiences where understanding the objectives of the Census and its functions can be misunderstood.
Consequently, Koneru explained that the myth “that all Asian Americans are affluent and well-educated” is a misconception that underestimates the very real needs for services that will not be delivered to those in need unless there is an accurate count from the Census.
North Carolina’s population growth will likely result in the addition of another seat in the House of Representatives, bringing the state’s total to 14 members. As the Census is used to reapportion congressional districts and redraw district lines inside states, Carolina Demography Director Tippett explained that political power and the allocation of federal dollars are only two of the critical outcomes of the Census count.
Another is the private sector’s use of Census data to make decisions about expansion, for example, by taking into consideration the size and education of a potential workforce or a state’s capacity to underwrite the cost of supporting needed infrastructure.
Stacey Carless, born and raised in Raleigh by a Jamaican immigrant family, reminded attendees that the first Census in 1790 was exclusionary in intent and by design. Indians were not counted and African Americans in bondage were counted only as three-fifths of a person.
Carless, the executive director of NC Counts Coalition and a lawyer, is dedicated to bringing as many North Carolinians into the Census as possible. Despite all the challenges the expanding coalition faces, she reminds everyone that come April 1, 2020, there will be an enumeration.
“Those who are not counted are essentially invisible,” she said. “We can’t let that happen.”