Funding for 2020 census outreach is imperative

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Funding for 2020 census outreach is imperative

The health of our communities depends on addressing risks to census

By Margaret Babayan and Jennifer Tran - April 1, 2019

Every ten years, the federal government sets out to count every person in the United States “once, only once, and in the right place.” But the 2020 census faces serious risks to fulfilling this mission – because of inadequate funding for field operations; having a digital questionnaire as the census form for the first time; and the potential for a xenophobic citizenship question to still be included in the census. Given these barriers to a complete and accurate count in Washington, legislators must invest in census outreach.

An undercount would not only jeopardize our political representation and funding for our schools, roads, and hospitals. It would also harm community health.

An undercount will undermine health equity.

The 2020 census will determine how billions of dollars for health-related federal programs will be allocated over the next ten years. Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infants, and Children program, and Medicaid are vital to community health. They support access to healthy food, basic necessities, and health care. States receive federal dollars to administer these programs based on census results.

In 2016, Washington received $16.7 billion to administer these programs in addition to things like special education grants, health center and school lunch programs, low-income home energy assistance, and more. The more people eligible for federally funded programs within a state, the more money that state will receive. Consequently, Washington state could lose $2,300 for each person not counted in the census.

Further, people of color, children, renters, people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, and rural communities have long been undercounted in the census. Communities more likely to be undercounted already face barriers to good health like poverty and unstable housing. Without adequate funding for outreach, these “hard to count” communities are even more likely to be missed in the 2020 census. That means the people who could benefit the most will see less funding for critical services that contribute to the well-being of families and communities.

Inaccurate census data could jeopardize the long-term health of Washington’s kids.

Nearly one in six children under age 5 risk not being counted by the U.S. census in our state. Worse, children of color, low-income children, and children living in immigrant households are at even greater risk of not being counted.

An undercount would not only jeopardize our political representation and funding for our schools, roads, and hospitals. It would also harm community health.

Undercounting children will mean less federal funding for essential programs that support healthy childhood development – programs like Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and SNAP. Access to these critical services and programs that support development in early childhood influence lifelong health and well-being. We owe it to our kids to invest in their health by making sure every child is counted in the 2020 census.

Inaccurate results are bad for public health.

Public health officials rely on census data to understand how diseases are affecting populations, identify emerging threats, develop interventions, control outbreaks, and more. For example, we know which communities to divert resources to in the fight against the opioid epidemic because we can compare opioid overdose trends to baseline census data. Without representative and reliable census data, we run the risk of systematically over-investing in problems that may not exist, or – more dangerously – officials may fail to identify catastrophic public health threats until it is too late.

The health of Washingtonians is at stake and the risks to the 2020 census are too important to ignore. This session, legislators can make a critical investment in community outreach to make sure that all Washingtonians are counted.

The House and Senate budgets included $12 million and $15 million in funding, respectively, for the 2020 census to promote an accurate and complete count in Washington. The Senate’s $15 million proposal would be a smart investment that can be used for census outreach efforts by trusted community organizations like the Washington Census Alliance coalition to ensure resources that promote health are distributed equitably long after the count is over.