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April 1 is Census Day and many Raleigh and Wake residents have already received notices from the U.S. Census Bureau asking them to respond to a census questionnaire. We spoke with Vanessa Crow, chair of the Complete Count Census Committee for the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Wake County, to help us make sense of the 2020 Census.
Public officials say for every person in Raleigh who fills out a census survey, the city gets $1,600 from the federal government. Is this accurate?
That takes all the money North Carolina receives from the federal government and divides it by the number of people in the state. It’s a big picture number but a more useful one, when we’re talking about money that actually goes into communities and helping citizens, is a more modest $17 per person. In Raleigh’s annual budget last year, the city got about $8.1 million in federal money. That money goes directly toward community development programs, things like improving homeless shelters, bus stations and community revitalization projects. So, some federal money is for big picture stuff—transit systems, highway maintenance, disaster and health care preparedness (think of the coronavirus)—but, at every level, money is apportioned based on census data, how many people are using trains, driving on highways and using schools and hospitals.
How does census data affect congressional and state legislative districts?
Political districts are drawn based on compactness, measured not by geography but by population. New census counts will start that process all over again. North Carolina will have new population numbers and those new numbers will be accommodated when lawmakers are drawing new districts. It’s an opportunity to have a fresh start and, hopefully, a fair process of apportioning these districts and we can leave our infamous gerrymandering issue behind us.
North Carolina has grown a lot since the last census was taken in 2010; are we likely to add seats to our current 13 in Congress?
If we get a good, complete count, we could get up to two new representatives in Congress. That increases the number of delegates we send to the Electoral College and to the primaries and it shows that, because North Carolina is growing so rapidly and is a deeply purple state, it’s getting more prominence on the national political scene. The political landscape here could change a lot based on new census data.
What advice would you give to undocumented residents about participating in the census?
The way it is written into the Constitution, the census is for everybody, “all persons living in the United States.” We encourage undocumented residents to participate because they’re allowed to and because the reality is a lot of these families are going to use government services. Even if they’re not using food stamps, housing assistance or Social Security, they’re still using roads, police and fire services. They are here and they deserve to be counted. There is a very realistic fear for some communities, but the Census Bureau does not give out data to any other government body other than for statistical aggregates. The perception of the risk for families can be strong, and we understand it is a scary political climate. But these are numbers we will use for the next 10 years, for children and for the elderly who may need to support. We have to look at where we’ll be in 2030.
How do you fill out the census questionnaire?
Everyone is encouraged to fill out the census online at 2020census.gov. A benefit of online participation is that the data can be processed very quickly compared to paper questionnaires and the U.S. Census Bureau can partner with local governments and nonprofits if any neighborhoods aren’t participating at the rates they would like. The Census Bureau has been recruiting numerators pretty aggressively. They want numerators who come from neighborhoods where they’re trusted to help go door to door, do address confirmations and field work. The jobs are well-paying and the Census Bureau is still hiring (check out wakegov.com/census).
Overall, why is it important to participate in the census?
It goes into three big categories. One, it’s your civic duty, everyone is technically required by the Constitution to participate and, philosophically, it’s the one thing where everyone counts equally, your other circumstances don’t matter. Two, it’s about political responsiveness. We’ve had issues in North Carolina with politicians thinking they should be able to choose their constituents instead of the other way around. This is our chance to make sure we are heard in the General Assembly and in Washington. Three, it’s about the money. It’s not just the social services but things like infrastructure, disaster relief planning and compensating people whose homes are damaged in hurricanes. Census data is used in determining the outcomes to civil rights cases. That’s how we figured out there was gerrymandering. And a lot of it is, think of the children. For them, it’s the next 10 years; this money goes to school lunch programs, health insurance, pre-K and college Pell grants. For Raleigh, and all towns and cities, this is money that’s used to help get ahead instead of just keeping heads above water.
Learn more and fill out the census questionnaire at 2020census.gov
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