Census Response

Census Response

What does this indicator measure?

This indicator measures the percentage of people residing in each Census tract who participated in the 2020 Decennial Census.

The connection to health

Everyone should be able to contribute their voice to the political process and to participate in their communities. Census participation is an indicator of both social power and social cohesion. It has strong, but indirect, connections to health.

The United States’ system of electoral representation has been rooted partially in the Decennial Census. The Constitution formally established population as the basis for sharing political power rather than wealth or land.53 The allocation of the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives is based on the population of people in each state. Within each state, electoral districts are redrawn based on where the population is distributed within each state. The implementation of the Decennial Census has – like much of the institutions in the United States has evolved from its original implementation. Throughout much of history in the United States, the Census was applied to protect the status, power, and wealth of White landowners. The activism of the Civil Rights movement was a catalyst for the Census to reverse its role as being utilized as a tool for racial inclusion rather than exclusion.

For the Decennial Census to be most effective for distributing federal power, communities must participate to the greatest extent possible to receive fair representation. With proper representation comes the social and political power to influence vital community conditions that affect health.

Not only does the Census help determine political power, but its results also help determine how hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding are allocated by Census tract for the next decade. This money is used for schools, hospitals, roads, and public works, all of which are essential determinants for individual and community health outcomes.54 If a community has been undercounted in the Census, it will not receive its equitable share of federal, state, and local funding.

Census participation has also been shown to be an indicator of social capital – or how residents of communities cooperate with one another to collectively solve problems and build their community.55 Numerous studies have shown a positive association between population health and social capital.56 While researchers do not fully understand whether Census participation is caused by social capital or vice versa,57 policies on the local level that are designed to increase either social capital or Census response rate will likely have a strong influence on each other.

Not only does the Census help obtain funding for local communities, but it is also a critical tool for local planners and decision-makers to understand the social, economic, and demographic conditions within their communities.58 Without an accurate understanding of community conditions, policy decisions may not be appropriate to meet the needs of residents.

Where to start?

Systemic inequalities often drive the barriers to Census participation - and underrepresentation in the Census can exacerbate systemic inequities by leading to an under-resourcing due to undercounting in the Census.

Increasing Census participation requires strategies focused on helping residents overcome the barriers to participation and increasing community social capital. Policy Actions that build social capital have the spillover benefits of increasing participation in the Decennial Census and increasing community social cohesion, civic engagement, and overall public health.54

Local leaders should craft policy solutions to encourage residents to participate by educating them on not only the importance of participation in the Census, but it is also important to debunk the false narratives around Census participation. Many residents may fear that their Census data may be used to endanger their residency in the United States or that their personal information may be shared with others. While Census participation is safe and anonymous; it is understandable that many people have fears that they could be harmed by sharing their responses.

Community leaders are essential to overcoming these obstacles to Census response. Through expanded resources for Census engagement and community outreach community stakeholders can ensure safe and equitable participation to overcome barriers to Census response.

By growing community support networks and local human infrastructure, local leaders can build social capital, encourage Census participation, and ensure that Census response will appropriately reflect conditions for building equity.

The 2020 Decennial Census was a case-in-point example of how Census participation may occur in less-than-ideal circumstances. Local Leaders should create contingency plans and infrastructure in the case of disturbances to standard operating procedures to ensure that Census responses remain high even if challenges to participation occur.