BY KARIS PRESSLER
The United States Census, the once every 10-year count of those living in the U.S. and its territories, was first taken in 1790. Now, 230 years later, local leaders are working feverishly to help Greater Lafayette understand that the Census can impact everything from what buildings will be built, to what roads will be repaired, and what resources could be made available to our community over the next 10 years and beyond.
“The things that come out of those 10 questions is amazing,” says Cindy Murray, Lafayette city clerk. Murray has been meeting with civic groups, organizations and businesses for months helping community members realize how simple and painless participating in the Census can be.
The goal of the 2020 Census according to the U.S. Census Bureau is “to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” Starting this spring, the 2020 Census questionnaire will ask who was living in a home, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, along with the age, sex, ethnicity, and race of everyone identified. This demographic information will then be used to determine how much federal funding can be allocated to help build and maintain infrastructure and is also used to calculate the number of Congressional seats for each state.
“When a new manufacturer or industry wants to come to our community, they definitely look at the Census to see the demographics, and what our economy is, and the type of folks that are here. And so, the Census plays a huge role. It develops our community,” Murray says.
Jeff Zeh, chief operating officer for IU Health Arnett, says that accurate Census data are essential in providing quality healthcare throughout the region since “the Census is the best way for us to have an understanding of the population we serve.”
Zeh explains that knowing demographics related to age, race and ethnicity is important so healthcare professionals can, for instance, actively work to decrease the high rate of pregnancy-related deaths among black women, and effectively treat lupus, a chronic condition that is more common among Asian and Hispanic women compared to non-Hispanic white women.
Census data are also linked to a community’s emergency response resources, as Murray learned when a local Census representative told her that while visiting a rural fire station, a resident shared, “You know, if it weren’t for the Census, we wouldn’t have gotten the federal money to build this firehouse.”
Murray sees the Census’s impact everywhere, even when driving around town. “People don’t know that they’re actually driving on roads that the Census helped us get the money for,” she says, citing the current construction on Twyckenham Boulevard as an example. “There’s $675 billion out there that can go to communities, and that can be spent on schools, fire trucks, infrastructure, transportation … And so it is important for people to be counted.”
Jos Holman, the librarian for the Tippecanoe County Public Library, appreciates the Census’s long reach over the past, present and future. As a librarian, he values the Census for its ability to paint an accurate portrait of America over time but also knows the immediate impact that federal funding can have on a library’s resources, specifically within rural communities.
“Were it not for the Census, smaller rural libraries would not be able to do some of the things that they want to do by way of technology, and technological resources, and services to their community,” he says.
“The hardest part is getting folks to not be afraid,” says Murray, when reflecting on people’s reluctance to participate in the Census. Although information reported to the Census must by law remain confidential, it remains difficult to convince everyone to participate.
“It’s not unusual for people who are poorer, people of color, and children to be undercounted,” explains Holman. He continues, “People of color who are in lower economic situations, they’re reluctant to share information … If I’m living in poverty, (taking the Census) is not high on my priority list. It’s not. It’s about my next meal, it’s about taking care of my kids, it’s about keeping my job, it’s about paying my rent.”
For this reason, Holman and Murray are collaborating with area organizations such as the YWCA and Greater Lafayette Commerce (GLC) to organize and sponsor events that can teach the public why participating in the Census is vital to the community’s success and its future. At these events Census workers will also be present to help attendees fill out and submit their household’s Census form.
“It’s not a difficult process,” explains Sana Booker, West Lafayette city clerk. “It’s not hard to do if we can get people to see the meaning of it … I think one of the things that the Census has not been very good at in the past is explaining why they are important.”
Murray agrees, and she has noticed a shift in how the Census has engaged with the public. In 2010, Census marketing materials – cups, pens, and bags emblazoned with the Census logo – inundated Murray’s office. But this time around, Murray appreciates how the Census has focused on making print and online materials available that clearly explain the Census’s purpose and impact. The Census Bureau also has invested in making the questionnaire more accessible. This year, for the first time, Census forms can be submitted either online, by mail or by phone. The questionnaire also will be available in 13 languages.
Murray is passionate about the Census’s direct connection to Greater Lafayette’s future. “It’s important that everybody participates no matter your age, your race, or ethnicity, your financial status … Because those numbers do count.”
When Booker, a woman of color, holds up a 2020 Census pamphlet and looks at it, she breaks into a wide smile then declares with a hint of awe, “I see me … for the first time.” On its cover, the pamphlet showcases a kaleidoscope of skin color. “This feels personal,” she says.
The addition of various skin tones on the Census’s promotional materials is one indicator of how far inclusion in this country has come.
“African Americans were often uncounted because they were not considered human. And so, when I think about the Census today, and in my lifetime, I should say, it was important to know who was present. And we were, but we were treated as invisible people. So, it is important on a very personal level to me that all people are counted. All people.” Booker pauses before continuing. “Everybody counts, every person has a story, and we all have a message.”
The GLC Diversity Roundtable has selected the motto “We all count” for its upcoming community-wide event that will aim to raise awareness and boost Census 2020 responses. Holman, who’s been a member of the Diversity Roundtable for 17 years, says that this event will celebrate the connection we all have to each other by living in the same geographic region. “We believe that if we can bring people together based on a Census event … where we do some hands-on things, but we also do some basic education, that is an opportunity to…allow people to join together, to bond,” he says.
“We are not counting things,” Booker shares with conviction when anticipating the impact that the 2020 Census will have on the community. “We are counting human lives that matter, who are the reason why education matters, the reason why hospitals matter, these are things that serve people.” And for this reason Booker hopes that everyone will participate in the 2020 Census and celebrate their role in making Greater Lafayette a thriving community that will continue to flourish for decades to come.