Blog by LSSNCA guest writer & volunteer, Jaclyn Goddette
The early chapters of the Bible read somewhat as a speedrun of the foundational events that gave birth to three world religions. The creation of the entire world is condensed into six days. Moses transforms from a baby in a basket floating down the Nile to prophet in a couple of verses. But then, right as the Israelites are about to embark on a massive road trip to the Promise Land to fulfill God’s covenant after he ushered them out of slavery, the narrative pauses for some administrative recordkeeping.
Specifically, God asks Moses to count the Israelites. The Book of Numbers begins and ends with a census.
“Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head.” (English Standard Version, Numbers 1.2).
Initially the census serves the function of determining how many warriors the Israelites will have should they need to wage war. But at the end of the book, the census also helps determine how to divvy up property among the tribes; Families with more members received more land (Numbers 26:52-56).
In a couple weeks, the United States will begin conducting its own census. As mandated by the Constitution, an enumeration of each state’s “respective numbers” is made “every subsequent Term of ten Years.” And just like it was for the 12 ancient tribes of Israel, it’s important for the future of our country that everyone is counted.
The results of the census will determine the number of seats each state receives in the House of Representatives, the boundaries of congressional and state district maps, and the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds for the next ten years. According to U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Coordinator Ronald E. Brown, the Virginia Complete Count Commission estimates that for every person not counted, the state would lose $20,000.
As a snapshot of the country, the census counts all people living in the United States on Census Day. This means everyone, regardless of citizenship status.
Refugees and immigrants like those served by LSSNCA are at the top of the hard-to-count populations list. New to the country, they are unlikely to be familiar with all of America’s civic procedures, let alone one that happens once every ten years. Language adds another barrier. And finally, the administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census has injected fear and confusion into immigrant communities.
And unfortunately, those most likely to be undercounted stand the most to lose from the allocation of federal support. The libraries, schools, and other resources that serve refugees depend on an accurate count to ensure they receive commensurate funding, as do public benefits such as Medicaid. Communities with large immigrant and refugee populations that don’t respond to the census could lose out on money and political representation.
“In the education arena, schools depend on federal dollars determined by the census to offset the cost of free and reduced meals,” adds Brown. “The building of hospitals and hospital services depend on federal dollars. The maintenance of our roadways depends on federal dollars.”
The census makes clear the ancient truth that there is power in numbers. But like all power, it can be wielded for nefarious purposes. Later in the Bible, King David is punished after conducting a census for what most Biblical scholars discern as selfish motives. Likewise, the census in America has been a vehicle for the privileged to hoard their clout. Native Americans were not counted in early censuses as they were not taxpayers, and following the three-fifths compromise, the census helped codify the dehumanization of enslaved people. The latest attempts by the Trump administration to use the census to discern citizenship status is another example of how this process can be used to undermine democracy.
Who we count and how we count them has always been a fraught subject. But immigrants and refugees can reclaim this census. By arming themselves with information and demanding to be counted, these vulnerable groups assert their right to fair representation.
To this end, the Census Bureau has worked toward making the process accessible. After receiving an invitation in the mail mid-March, people can respond online for the first time. For those without internet access or who have cybersecurity concerns, there’s the option to respond by phone or paper. Respondents can answer in 12 languages other than English, and guides are available in 59 languages. And for those with lingering worries about the citizenship question or other privacy concerns, every census employee takes an oath to protect your personal information for life. Title 13 of the U.S. Code prohibits the bureau from releasing identifiable personal information, even to law enforcement.
In Numbers, two census bookends the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. Let’s hope Census 2020 delivers us into a brighter decade, one where we move a step closer to reaching America’s great promise of equality.