An institution in the U.S. that’s happened every ten years since its founding is just four months away: the census. We explore what’s happening in Oregon, and how groups are getting ready for the count.
The current political climate hasn’t done much to encourage people to give their personal information to the federal government. President Trump tried -- and failed -- to add a question about a person’s citizenship status to the questionnaires, but the fact the question was even considered could affect the accuracy of the census.
“There’s no question that the conversation about having a citizenship question has created a kind of anxiety and fear in communities of color and particularly immigrant communities,” says Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett. "There’s no question that the damage has already been done.”
Tervalon-Garrett is with We Count Oregon, a campaign to ensure that everyone in Oregon is counted in the census. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans often go under-counted. But why is it important for everyone to be counted in the census? Donald Bendz, with the Census Bureau, explains.
“We all travel on roads, we all have a use for education, we all have a use for medical services,” he says. "So depending on your situation there are a number of different reasons where census data and money derived from census data would impact you and your community.”
And that can be a lot of money. Oregon received nearly $13.5 billion in federal funding from census data in 2016. Because of an undercount in 1990, Oregon missed out on almost $2 billion over the next 10 years. With that much funding at stake, every state wants to make sure that their people are counted.
Debra Thompson is a political science professor at the University of Oregon. She wrote a book covering race and the census. Thompson says the Trump administration’s aggressive actions on immigration will make it harder for census takers in immigrant communities.
“I think that there are going to be a lot of people who want to avoid the gaze of the state," she says. "And that is, they don’t want the government to know about their lives and I think that in this particular climate that fear is pretty valid."
It’s not crazy to be afraid of what the government will do with your information. During the 1940’s, the Treasury Department secretly used census data to find the homes of Japanese Americans eluding internment.
The Census Bureau's Donald Bendz says the laws have since been changed to better protect people’s private information.
“All Census Bureau employees take a lifetime oath to protect people’s data and any violation of that oath could result in prison time of up to 5 years and a $250,000 fine,” he says.
Groups are reaching out to make sure that all traditionally under-counted populations are represented. Groups such as We Count Oregon want to ensure an equitable census.
“Our plan is to contact, that’s like have a live conversation with 200,000 Oregonians," Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett says. "Our work will happen in 10 languages and we will be using phones, doors and peer-to-peer texting to contact folks.”
We Count Oregon is the first census equity campaign that they know of in Oregon’s history. The group plans on working with local community groups who know their area better than anybody. Tervalon-Garrett says despite laws protecting people's data, she’s not comfortable telling people it's completely safe.
“But what I do know is that the impact of the census should be bigger than our fear,” she says. “We just aren’t in a position in this state or frankly in this nation to be sitting by and try to be invisibilized. We need to be counted and our voices need to be heard.”
By partnering with groups like We Count Oregon, the state can ensure that they get their fair share of federal funds to help out everyone.