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OP-ED: Census is crucial, but many people may go uncounted

Monica Guerrero Vazquez
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
The Census Bureau provides U.S. households with a number of ways to confirm the validity of a survey, so be wary of scams and check before sending sensitive personal information. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

This year marks the beginning of a new decade and importantly, a new census — the nationwide survey that will influence the political and socioeconomic agenda for the next 10 years.

When I moved to Baltimore in 2011, the census data from the previous year had been released and with it came a debate on redistricting and the loss of representation in the General Assembly.

Nine years later, I have witnessed the growth of immigrant communities in Baltimore. You can see the demographic shift throughout the city from inclusive murals to the growing number of minority-owned businesses.

The recent Year in Review report from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs highlighted the tremendous contributions by immigrants who account for 1 in 5 businesses in Baltimore. The Latino population alone represents approximately 8% of the city’s population, a 134% increase since the last census.

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Nonetheless, it is common to hear people say, “there is only a small percentage of immigrants,” or, “we don’t have more interpreters because there aren’t very many non-English speakers.”

The 2020 census is an opportunity for immigrants and all marginalized groups to be counted. An accurate count can further justify demands for political, health care, public health, education and systemic changes. A low count could perpetuate further budget cuts to social programs and clinics, redistricting and the loss of political representation needed for communities to thrive.

The U.S. Census Bureau acknowledges their inability to reach certain communities, which they call hard to count. This refers to “(communities) for whom a real or perceived barrier exists to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process.”

In addition to immigrants, households with single parents, young children, low income and limited access to the internet are overrepresented in hard-to-count communities. Why? Consider the following. You have neither internet access nor a computer in your home. You receive a letter from an agency you don’t know, in a language you can’t read, asking you to submit personal information online.

I have worked at Centro SOL, the Center for Salud/Health and Opportunities for Latinos at Johns Hopkins, where we have advocated for quality health and health care access for the Latinx community in Baltimore, for more than five years. We work with Latinx, low-income, limited internet-access and limited English-proficient families who comprise hard-to-count communities.

It is very common for my team and me to assist families respond to letters they receive written in English regarding health insurance, utility bills and scholarships notifications for their children. The language in which the Census Bureau notifies households about the submission form is based on the previous census. In cities like Baltimore, where there has been significant, rapid demographic change, families with limited English proficiency are not part of the 2010 data, therefore may not be reached in their preferred language and consequently may not submit the form.

The census has historically undercounted marginalized groups, and a language barrier to the census participation risks increasing disparities through selective undercounting. This not only effects individual communities, but also entire cities.

Starting this month, along with many other organizations around Baltimore, Centro SOL will launch a census campaign to reach out to households in hard-to-count neighborhoods. Everyone on my team will receive information about the census to be prepared to answer questions and encourage families with limited English proficiency to submit the census form.

There is no makeup when communities are undercounted for the next 10 years, and statistics from the census influence policy. Results from the census “shapes Congress and its legislative framework” and impact federal funding allocation. Baltimore could lose about $1,800 per person who is not counted. Marginalized groups are the populations that might benefit the most from better political representation, more federal funds and by the potential policies that might be instituted if there is an accurate representation of the population.

For example, programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, school meals programs and funding to the Health Resources and Services Administration could all be negatively impacted by inaccurate census counts. The Health Resources and Services Administration funds federal health clinics in Maryland “based on an assessment of the need of services in a given area and the merit of the application submitted” based on census data of underserved populations.

We all have a role in ensuring that everyone is counted as accurately as possible in order to reflect the needs, assets and qualities of the community. Talk with your neighbor about the census and join organizations, like The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the advocacy group CASA, that are driving campaigns like #BmoreCounts to make sure everyone is counted in this year’s census.

— Monica Guerrero Vazquez is executive director of Centro SOL, an affiliate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.