The decennial census provides vital indicators for American society, influencing U.S. government representation and allocation of funds. With the 2020 census just around the corner, new student group Tufts Census Action aims to spread the word to Tufts campus and its surrounding communities about just how important an accurate census count really is.
Founded by junior Caroline Wolinsky and sophomore Kalle Meehan, the group is a project funded by the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement that, in partnership with JumboVote, will aim to take a two-pronged approach to increase participation in the 2020 Census.
One approach will include on-campus education, with activities ranging from club meetings to speaker events to roundtable discussions. The other strategy will be geared toward canvassing in areas that house populations historically undercounted by the census.
“We’re planning on getting in touch with ‘complete count’ committees in the areas, and offering them students who speak other languages as resources and materials they can pass out that might be helpful to their residents,” Wolinsky said.
Meehan said that modern politics have largely influenced the group’s mission.
“The census has always been important, but with the current administration, there is a real fear that people will be undercounted or will not want to participate,” Meehan said. “So we want to try to take advantage of the area that we’re in, which is very diverse, and try to help increase participation in order to count people who may not necessarily be counted otherwise.”
Ari Gofman, a social science data librarian at Tufts specializing in government information, highlighted the specific ways in which the government uses census data to allocate over $800 billion worth of funding.
“It’s everything from financial aid for colleges, Pell Grants, campus buildings, research libraries, Medicare, social health programs, roads, childcare, everything,” they said. “Plus, the reason it was originally developed was for political representation. That’s how the [number of representatives in] House of Representatives gets allocated. And, it’s used to plan for the future. What policies we need to make, how much money we need to allocate by municipality, etc.”
With that said, marginalized communities often go undercounted, which results in fewer resources for those who could benefit from them most. Gofman listed African Americans, Latinx people, immigrants, non-native English speakers, those who identify as LGBTQ, individuals living in rural communities, college students and people experiencing homelessness as among these historically undercounted populations.
“Both on the money side and the representation side, having an accurate count is crucial in making sure that people are getting represented,” Gofman said. “Not allocating sufficient [government] representation is a big problem. And in terms of money, everyone has the right to access things like roads and emergency rooms, and we need to know how many people there are so that there can be enough services for everyone.”
Matthew Tolbert, co-chair of student-run nonpartisan and civic engagement group JumboVote, also discussed the detrimental consequences of undercounting.
“A lot of these federal dollars are going to vulnerable people,” Tolbert said. “Low-income people, children of low-income people, college students — who may or may not be as vulnerable. But one thing all these groups have in common is that they’re difficult to count. So, as it ends up, the money that’s allocated based on the census services those who are most easily undercounted.”
Marcos García, the founder and director of the nonprofit Committee of Refugees from El Salvador and an immigrant from El Salvador himself, explained the critical importance of an accurate census for immigrant communities. He said that in 2010, immigrant communities were severely undercounted and, as a result, now lack representation in nationwide, statewide and citywide governments.
“In the 2010 census count, we lost almost half a million [immigrant] people in Massachusetts,” he said. “And because we lost [those numbers], we lost money and representation.”
García discussed the negative stereotypes surrounding immigrants in the U.S., and explained how having accurate counts of immigrants — and therefore more government representation and resources for immigrant communities — can ultimately help deconstruct these stereotypes. However, he worries that immigrants will choose not to complete the 2020 census questionnaire, especially in light of the current administration.
“We saw this in 2010, where many immigrants said ‘Oh, why would we bother with this, it doesn’t even help us,’” he said. “And this time is going to be worse than that. People don’t have the information. It’s going to be a big fight, because we’re going to need to convince them that [the census] is important for them.”
He hopes that Tufts students will join him in this fight and will engage with surrounding immigrant communities in order to promote participation in the 2020 census — just as Tufts Census Action aims to do.
“Sometimes parents don’t understand how their kids get free breakfast or lunch at school,” he said. “It’s paid for by the money that is allocated to the school system, which comes from the data collected by the census. People just don’t know, because this kind of thing doesn’t happen in many other [places around the world]. The best way to help is to inform people of the benefits.”
Wolinsky and Meehan have already outlined specific ways in which they plan to engage with individuals on campus and in the community and feel confident that Tufts students are up for the challenge.
“This just seems like a very Tufts thing,” Wolinsky said. “So many students have skills and are really interested in civic action. If you’ve taken, for example, six semesters of language, then why not get involved? You don’t have to speak fluently to go canvas, and you can learn the vocabulary really easily.”
“And having a college student who speaks your native language is likely so much less intimidating than a middle-aged white man coming in and asking you how you identify,” Meehan added.
Wolinsky said that the group also hopes to connect with Tufts students who might have reservations about answering the census, such as undocumented students and students in other marginalized communities. They’ve already begun working with the FIRST Resource Center in an effort to accomplish this goal.
“We want to reach out to [these students] in a way that isn’t disrespectful or infringing on their privacy,” she said. “We want to make sure we have a presence on campus without pushing away students who would benefit from these resources.”
Wolinsky and Meehan also hope that, because the 2020 census will be administered online or through mailed questionnaires, more Tufts students and community members will be inclined to participate. Not only will it be more accessible than ever, but also it will provide a valuable opportunity for individuals to self-identify.
“For a long time, a census proctor would come to your door and would assign your race based on your phenotypic attributes,” Meehan said. “Now, it’s a way for people to claim their identity.”
When asked what she wanted Tufts students to know about Tufts Census Action, Wolinsky made a strong case for the fundamental importance of the census to our democracy and why Tufts students should care.
“The census isn’t just important because of our current political climate, but it remains one of the most important events in our history. There shouldn’t be any barriers to people answering and being counted and it should be the one thing that we have that accurately reflects the people in our country, the funding that they get and the resources are available to them for the next decade,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a political thing. It doesn’t have to be a divisive issue. And it shouldn’t be.”