Census Flaws: Language Inaccessibility & Limited Community Outreach

Immigrant Rights, Racial Justice, Voting Rights

Census Flaws: Language Inaccessibility and Insufficient Community Outreach

Conditions Ripe for Undercount

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) calls on the U.S. Census Bureau to revise its operational plan for Massachusetts to increase outreach to historically undercounted populations who are at risk of underrepresentation in 2020. Given the history of inaccurate counts in Massachusetts, we demand that the Census Bureau commit to:

  • restore a field office dedicated to on–the–ground operations in western Massachusetts;
  • hire racially and linguistically diverse field workers to administer the Census and engage hard-to-count populations; and
  • provide appropriate language support for non-English speakers.

The 2020 Census poses significant challenges. The Census Bureau’s decision to fund the 2020 Census at 2010 levels, relying on alleged “innovations” to lower costs, has already led to the cancellation of pilot programs, delays in field worker hiring, and scaling back of public outreach. The 2020 Census will also see the closure of Boston’s Regional Census Office, and a substantial reduction in field offices with only six field offices (compared to twelve in 2010) in Massachusetts.

Western Massachusetts includes 1.6 million hard-to-count residents and some of the hardest areas to count in the country, but there are no field offices in Massachusetts west of Worcester.

The Bureau’s decision to conduct the 2020 Census online for the first time does not reduce the need for outreach to hard-to-count populations. In western Massachusetts, 1 in 5 homes lack internet access. In Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, 32% of homes lack internet access. Undercounting these areas will have adverse effects on residents who have legitimate and urgent claims on Census-allocated funds.

Immigrants are also less likely to participate in the Census because the current xenophobic climate has generated tremendous uncertainty and fear. The dismantlement of immigration programs such as DACA and TPS leaves immigrants fearful of adverse consequences for themselves and their families if they disclose information to the federal government. The possibility of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census has only heightened these reasonable fears. Whether or not there is a citizenship question on the final Census form, the test forms that are being sent out include a citizenship question.

LCR therefore calls on the Bureau to hire trusted messengers as field workers to engage hard-to-count populations. Trusted messengers must be racially and linguistically diverse, and should be drawn from the communities they are counting.

We also demand that the Bureau ensure that Census language support is matched to the languages spoken in hard-to-count communities. Currently, the schedule of non-English languages supported by the 2020 Census only partially overlaps with the languages spoken in the Commonwealth. The Census will be mailed in just two languages, English and Spanish. It will be available online in only twelve languages. There is limited, if any, support for people who speak languages highly relevant to hard-to-count populations, including Khmer and Cape Verdean. Lack of robust language assistance and support will dilute Census participation.

A full and accurate Census count is critical in 2020. An undercount would severely harm our families and communities jeopardizing their access to much-needed federal funding and diluting our congressional representation. The Census Bureau must act now to prevent this harm.

Letter to Census Bureau FINAL