Making the 2020 Census Count for Us

Too often, people and communities most in need of resources lack access to them. In the U.S., the distribution of resources and political power is based on the census, which is an effort to count every individual living in the country every ten years. While this system is imperfect, the census is an opportunity that could enhance the quality of life for survivors throughout the country. This is especially true among populations often considered to be underserved: in Virginia, populations who are most undercounted include Black, Latinx, and Asian communities; children; and those with unstable housing. We must do our part to improve the accuracy of the census to ensure resources are equitably distributed.

The 2020 census offers more safe ways to participate in a brief questionnaire than ever before – online, by mail, over the phone, or with a census enumerator coming to your residence – and even offers support in twelve languages other than English. Despite improvements in accessibility, data collection faces unique challenges due to mixed attitudes about the census, the government, and the tech used to collect and store responses – all during the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings for racial justice.

But it’s exactly this social context that highlights the importance of the census. As people committed to ending and preventing violence, we shouldn’t forget that getting counted is another way to influence decision-making power for the benefit of our communities. Getting a full, fair, and accurate census count is critical for communities to get their fair share of $1.5 trillion in federal funding for essential services and public works, and influences economic development impacting local jobs. Census data also determines how residents are represented at all levels of government for the next ten years and serves as the cornerstone for research and evaluation projects.

Street lamp post with red sticker on it with yellow words that read, "do you want a future of decency, equality, and real social justice."

As an emerging evaluator, I know the value of using census data to support our anti-violence work. Along with the data collected on our programs and services, census data can help us talk about the context of our work in needs assessments, grant applications, evaluations, and outreach efforts. Sexual and domestic violence services, community education, and partnerships depend on grant programs that rely on census data for funding and planning. And we know that advocacy builds survivors’ connections to community resources such as housing programs, Medicaid and FAMIS, SNAP and WIC, childcare services, child and adult education, and services for older adults – all of which receive funding based on census data.

I also know that data can be weaponized, and I recognize the legacy of using the census for disenfranchisement and oppression. While I’m no historian, I see clear connections between the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, the use of census data to incarcerate Japanese Americans at internment camps in World War II, counting incarcerated people in the rural areas where prisons are located, the dangers of asking about citizenship, and insufficient information on gender and sexual orientation. Fortunately, the Census Bureau is legally required to protect the confidentiality of responses and doesn’t ask any questions about citizenship this year. I can understand why people may feel uncomfortable participating – and despite their concerns, I encourage everyone to think about which communities get fewer resources when older, white adults with higher incomes are more likely to participate than people with other identities.

Census activities started at the beginning of 2020 and there’s still time to be counted. However, the director of the Census Bureau announced on August 3 that all data collection efforts would end on September 30. Cutting the timeframe short by a full month means billions of dollars are at stake for communities across the state. There’s greater risk of not reaching populations identified as hard-to-count in Virginia, including Black, Latinx, and Asian people; young children and older adults; and people who are unhoused. Additionally, an interactive map of current census response rates show lower self-response rates among rural localities in Virginia, where broadband internet is less accessible.

Since the census affects our resources and representation, it’s up to us as trusted community organizations, advocates, and activists to make it count over the next few weeks. Here are a few ways we can help get out the count:

  • Make sure your organization has participated. While individuals and organizations are required by law to participate in the enumeration process, we still get to make decisions about what that participation looks like and how to share information safely. Plus, the Census Bureau offered domestic violence shelters and connected housing programs the opportunity to work with specially trained enumerators. But if you didn’t opt-in to that process, there are still safe ways to complete the form. Check out this blog post from census partner NNEDV or reach out to us.
  • Fact-check myths. For instance, lots of people mistakenly believe that the census is only for citizens or asks about citizenship status. People also worry that the census asks about religion, income, or collects other demographic information. Check out the sample form in English and Spanish to review the questions and answer options.
  • Spread the word in your organization. Talk to your coworkers, volunteers, and board about why the census matters. Discuss the possibility of making public statements, distributing information to clients, or connecting with local partners also working to get out the count.
  • Support your Local Complete Count Committee. Sexual and domestic violence organizations can help with outreach or collaborate on virtual or socially distanced census events. Find yours by clicking here.  

This urgency is why we are holding two technical assistance calls on the importance of the census and voting. We hope to energize advocates, preventionists, and others in the movement to end violence in Virginia about the importance of building connections between the census, electoral politics, and supporting survivors in our communities. Join us online for the following events:

Why the census is so critical for survivors
Thursday, August 27, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM Eastern
Sign up for the call on Zoom at: https://bit.ly/censusTAcall

The election is coming! How to ensure voting access for survivors
Wednesday, September 9, 2:00 – 3:30 PM Eastern
Sign up for the call on Zoom at: https://bit.ly/votingaccessTAcall

Getting counted in the census and voting in elections are important ways that we can influence decisions about our collective futures, especially when the votes and voices of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have been systematically excluded and suppressed. Movement building requires us to be involved in multiple strategies to bring about sustainable change, and we can’t afford to overlook the ecosystem of approaches beyond electoral approaches. We look forward to hearing how you will integrate these options and others into your toolbox for social change!

Additional Census Resources for Advocates:


Kristin Vamenta (she/her or they/them) is the Data and Evaluation Project Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. In addition to assessing the effectiveness of Action Alliance programs and supporting member agencies in collecting and using data, Kristin provides training and technical assistance on crisis intervention services; prevention and advocacy approaches to tech safety; and racial justice as integral to violence prevention and intervention.

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