Last week, Essence and the All-In Cities initiative at PolicyLink hosted the first virtual roundtable for the ESSENCE-PolicyLink Mayors Roundtable focused on “Black Women’s Empowerment.” This gave the mayors in the network an opportunity to discuss a wide range of topics including entrepreneurship, how black women can leverage their political power, and importance of storytelling in empowering – and changing the narratives around – Black women.

As the conversation shifted towards the importance of representation, mayors pointed to one tool that is significant in ensuring that Black people’s voices count: the 2020 U.S. Census. The U.S. Constitution mandates that every ten years the federal government count every resident, which helps inform how nearly $900 billion in federal resources are distributed to communities across the country, and how political districts at all levels are drawn.

Each decade, however, over a million people fail to get counted. Advocates are particularly concerned by the Trump administration’s push for the addition of a citizenship question as this could dissuade many more people from responding given the threat this administration poses to immigrants (the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on whether the question can be included next month).  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the last count missed more than 1.5 million people, particularly Blacks, Hispanics, renters, and young men.  Robert Groves, the Census Bureau director at the time, stated, “Because ethnic and racial minorities disproportionately live in hard-to-count circumstances, they too were undercounted relative to the majority population.”

Today, more than one in three Black Americans live in hard-to-count census tracts characterized by poverty and higher rates of rental housing. Due to rising rental costs and stagnant wages, many renters experience housing instability, making them even more likely to be missed in the census. Black households are also more likely to be “doubled up,” or multiple friends and family living together due to a lack of affordable housing options. Furthermore, families are increasingly hard to track because of evictions, with Black women at especially high risk. Other factors include a distrust in government authorities and limited internet access as The Census Bureau encourages households to answer their questionnaires online.

The stakes of undercounting are high: When African-American communities are undercounted, political districts may not accurately represent residents, denying Black people full representation. This could also impact how federal funding is allocated to communities that are disproportionately Black. In addition, the federal government relies on census data to monitor discrimination and enforce civil rights laws including voting rights and equal employment opportunity. Despite the risk of undercounting, local leaders can work to ensure that more people are counted in next year’s census.

Just this week Stacey Abrams launched Fair Count, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that hard-to-count populations in the state of Georgia, including people of color, non-English speakers, and renters are tallied during the 2020 census. Based available census data, roughly 1 in 5 Georgians live in hard-to-count neighborhoods. The effort will utilize traditional organizing, digital outreach, as well as faith- and community-based initiatives. In a video, Abrams explains, “The Census decides if our schools are overcrowded, our neighborhoods get their share of resources, and how our political leaders get chosen.”

In Detroit, city officials are planning a “shadow census” later this year in the city’s seven council districts to prepare for the actual count. Part of its testing will include sending out print newsletters and fine-tuning the mailing address data based on bounce rates. Like many cities, Detroit has experienced major population shifts with residents moving to different parts of the city and vacant properties scattered throughout. Local officials hope a dry run will help them gain a better understanding of where to target their efforts during the official count next year.

To prepare for the Census, state and local governments play a critical role in outreach and encouraging participation. It is important that we reach out to our local leaders and hold them accountable for ensuring that our communities are not ignored this time around. As Abrams stated in her announcement, “If we don’t get counted, we simply won’t count.”

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