By Toni G. Atkins | Notes from Toni
After Election Day, the clock will start ticking on another hugely important matter of public policy: the 2020 U.S. census. Most Americans don’t realize just how important the census is to effective governing. It paints a picture of America — who we are, what we look like, and what our needs are — and that picture is a key factor in determining the distribution of political power and resources in our country.
Not only does the census shape our local, state and congressional representation; it also decides California’s share of approximately $600 billion in funds to state and local governments for education, Medicaid, and other health programs, highways, housing, law enforcement and much more.
If we want an accurate picture — one that truly reflects who we are as a nation and gives each of us a voice in our democracy — we need a complete count of every person who calls America home.
For most of American history, the census has been a relatively ordinary, nonpartisan exercise. The Constitution calls for a periodic count of every person in America, and the census has been conducted every decade since 1790, mostly without controversy.
But this time, things are different. The federal government wants to add a citizenship question for every American household for the first time in nearly 70 years. On the surface, that sounds straightforward enough. But if you read between the lines, it is clear this decision could have devastating consequences.
In this national political climate, marked by fear and disdain for immigrants reminiscent of some of the darkest chapters in American history, adding a citizenship question would undoubtedly result in lower response rates for immigrant communities, undocumented or otherwise.
This cynical effort is being challenged in federal court. But no matter the end result of those lawsuits, we need to start preparing now to ensure all Californians are counted, our voice in Congress is protected, and we don’t lose out on billions of dollars in federal funding vital for our communities.
California stands to lose more than any other state if we don’t have a thorough census. We have more “hard to count” communities than any other state, including people of color, immigrants and families in rural communities. Kids are especially vulnerable; about 4.5 million young children live in neighborhoods with a high risk of an undercount. Records show the last U.S. census failed to count almost 1 million children younger than age 5. In order to give our kids the support they need in our schools, health care systems and countless other areas, we need to make sure they are counted.
If we don’t get an accurate count of all California residents, in addition to a loss of federal funding, we could potentially lose a seat in Congress, meaning our most vulnerable communities would have even less representation.
Fortunately, time is still on our side. Working closely with Governor Jerry Brown and my colleagues in the Legislature, we are taking steps to ensure we have every resource necessary to count all of our communities. But just like voting, the responsibility ultimately falls on all of us. So when you get that census questionnaire in the mail in the coming months, I hope you will take the opportunity to make sure your family is part of the American picture. If you have any questions about the U.S. census, email Senator.Atkins@sen.ca.gov or call 619-645-3133.
—Toni G. Atkins is the Speaker Emeritus of the California State Assembly. For more information, please visit her website, asmdc.org/members/a78 where you can sign up for her e-newsletter or get the latest news on legislation and other activities. You also may follow her on Twitter, @toniatkins.