The Census & Civil Rights
Why is the census an important civil rights issue?
Census data directly affects decisions made on a great number of matters of national and local importance, including education, employment, veterans' services, public health care, rural development, redistricting, the environment, transportation, housing, and the enforcement of civil rights laws.
Despite more resources and better planning, the 2000 census missed an estimated 16 million people and double-counted 17 million more. Low-income communities, particularly low-income communities of color, were disproportionately undercounted in the census. As a result, many individuals were denied an equal voice in their government (since legislative districts are drawn based on decennial census data), and many communities were shortchanged on federal and state funding for schools, crime prevention, health care, and transportation.
An accurate census directly affects our nation’s ability to ensure equal representation and equal access to important governmental resources for all Americans, and thus must be regarded as one of the most significant civil rights issues facing the country today.
Why are people of color and low-income people disproportionately undercounted?
There are several reasons for the persistent and disproportionate undercount of people of color and low-income people, including:
- lower response rates for mail and door-to-door collection methods in lower-income areas;
- lower education levels, illiteracy, and difficulty with the English language, affecting the ability of many individuals to understand the census;
- a general misunderstanding of the importance of census participation in these communities; and,
- distrust or suspicion of government, leading to a fear that census responses may be used by immigration or law enforcement officials to deport or incarcerate or may disqualify one for social welfare programs.
Low-income people, people of color, children, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people living in urban areas are most likely to be undercounted. In contrast, college students living away from home, people who own more than one home, non-Hispanic Whites, suburban residents, and higher-income people are more likely to be counted twice, leading to an overcount of these population groups.
What is the relationship of the Census to voting rights?
Census data are used for redistricting, or determining representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, school boards, and city councils. Census information is used to enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which outlaws gerrymandering of legislative districts with the intention of diluting the concentration of minority voters. Failing to accurately account for local concentrations of minority groups in a census count hampers fair redistricting efforts since voting power would not be properly allocated on the basis of population.