Oped: Census question hurts equity efforts

Nikki Highsmith Vernick
Tribune News Service

"Is this person a citizen of the United States?" This simple question, which the Census Bureau is proposing to add to the 2020 census, could disrupt the once-every-10-years count of our national population. Our country already struggles to adequately count people of color and people in poverty. The citizenship question would surely decrease immigrant participation and compound the challenge of counting all Marylanders — and the census matters to Marylanders.

The federal government uses census data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds, so an undercount would hurt our residents by putting federal funds for vital health and social services at risk. As a health foundation, the Horizon Foundation opposes the addition of the citizenship question and encourages other foundations and nonprofits to do the same.

The Horizon Foundation and its community partners are launching an initiative to advance equitable health outcomes in Howard County. Equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to live a long, healthy life — and no one is left behind because of who they are or where they live. Research shows that some members of our community face barriers to good health, overall wellness and opportunity. Communities of color, in particular, experience higher levels of chronic disease, deaths and disabilities.

The citizenship question is really an issue of equity. Our grantees see the fear some residents face daily in today's anti-immigration climate. A growing distrust of the government will make it even harder to achieve a fair and accurate census count. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau's own 2017 research found unprecedented concerns among immigrants and those living with immigrants about responding to census takers' questions, because of worry that the information might be shared with other government agencies and used against them or their loved ones. Even Census Bureau staff have warned that adding the citizenship question would increase non-response, especially since the bureau has not had an opportunity to test the question in the current national climate or with the survey instrument that will be used in 2020.

If residents choose not to participate in the census because of fears around immigration enforcement, that will lead to undercounting from communities with a high proportion of immigrants and minorities. That, in turn, would lead to decreased federal funds for many health and social service programs, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Head Start, all of which rely on census data for apportionment of federal funding. Some communities may not get their fair share of assistance programs specifically designed to help them. This will also hurt the state's health and social service nonprofits and the foundations that fund them.

Social movements require bold responses, especially when government policy would directly discriminate against classes of people. We are active in our fight for equity, and we can be active in this battle over the census question. There is power in our community, and when we harness it we can make positive change. A tenet of Horizon's equity initiative calls for elevating diverse voices from our disadvantaged communities. We ask community leaders and organizations to join us in opposing the citizenship question.

We are in good company. A nationwide funder collaborative that includes the United Philanthropy Forum and the Funders' Committee for Civic Participation has galvanized more than 300 foundations from around the country to actively oppose adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census. And here in Maryland, this includes the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, Maryland Nonprofits, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, social justice and faith organizations, and many leading immigrant organizations and individual Marylanders who will be affected by this change.

Let's join our voices together for the sake of equity and democracy.

— Nikki Highsmith Vernick is the CEO of the Horizon Foundation and an ABAG board member; she can be reached at nhvernick@thehorizonfoundation.org.