Last month, the US Supreme Court decided the contentious case about whether the Commerce Secretary can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form.
Why nonprofits have a stake in the Census count
While mandated by the Constitution to apportion political representation, the results of the decennial count of every person in America affect the lives of us all—including nonprofits—every day. Census data are used to allocate not only political power between the states, but also about $900 billion in federal funds annually. Many of those dollars flow to the work of nonprofits through grants and contracts with federal, state, and local governments. Plus, the data provide information that for-profit businesses, governmental entities, and nonprofits will use when making business and planning decisions over the next decade. Anything less than a fair, accurate, and complete count shortchanges communities and produces flawed data upon which billions in investments are based. In short, everyone loses when everyone is not counted.
We wrote our amicus brief to make abundantly clear what the citizenship question could mean to frontline nonprofits. The evidence at all three federal court trials, including sworn testimony from Census Bureau experts, showed that including the citizenship question on the census would lead to undercounts and flawed results. We wanted the Court to look beyond the raw partisanship that fills DC and see the practical truth that an unfair, inaccurate, and incomplete count by the federal government poses significant threats to the work of nonprofits in local communities across the country. Those threats include these three points we stressed in our brief:
Impact on dollars and sustainability
When individuals aren’t counted, they aren’t erased. They still exist, as do their human needs. The uncounted child still attends school, the uncounted veteran still needs a home, the uncounted farmer still uses roads and bridges, and the uncounted widow still needs her doctor. For every person the census fails to count, fewer dollars are allocated to the community where the person lives. States lose anywhere between $533 and $2,309 annually per person who isn’t counted. When resources are withheld due to undercounts, it unfairly shifts the government’s financial responsibilities for helping the public onto the backs of charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations
Impact on data and effectiveness
Undercounts do not simply leave numbers out; they distort the true numbers, essentially corrupting the data that are reported. One example should suffice: should a nonprofit hospital build a geriatric or a pediatric wing to its facilities? Flawed data could cause millions of charitable dollars to be misspent.
Impact on democracy and trust in government
Throughout our nation’s history, nonprofit organizations have played a vital and unique role in promoting democracy. Through nonprofits, people stand up and speak out for the public good, often providing a voice for those individuals and groups who are unable to speak for themselves. Likewise, nonprofits share the responsibility to promote greater engagement of the citizenry, civic dialogue, open elections, and open government. A census that is not fair, accurate, and complete would undermine public trust in government and adversely affect the ability of nonprofits to engage the public.
What the Supreme Court ruled
While ever-shifting majorities affirmed the district court on some items and overruled it on others, the bottom line is that the Court rejected the Commerce Secretary’s claimed rationale for adding the citizenship question and sent the case back to the already very skeptical district court judge to give the federal government another shot at coming up with a legitimate excuse.
Specifically, by a 5–4 split, a majority of the Justices agreed with the district court that the Commerce Secretary’s asserted reason for adding a citizenship question was pretextual—intentionally false and offered to cover up true motives or intentions.
Gazing into the future
There will be many legal contortions between now and the date all residents in the United States complete the 2020 Census. Those many courtroom plot twists may even include battles over whether the President can unilaterally delay the constitutionally mandated census count to buy time to come up with a new rationale that will survive Supreme Court muster, as he threatened to do following the Court’s decision. Which means gazing into a crystal ball is as likely to predict the future as relying on the pronouncements of a tarot card reader at a carnival. Instead, nonprofits need to focus their…
Eyes on the Prize
There is much work to be done to prepare for the actual 2020 census—and nonprofits play a critical role ensuring that every person is counted. As trusted problem-solvers in their communities, nonprofits have the relationships and influence to overcome fear among populations that feel they have been unfairly targeted. Working together, local nonprofits can help coordinate get-out-the-count efforts, and share insights and resources—intellectual and financial—to promote public awareness. Many nonprofit leaders are already members of their local or state complete count commissions; still more can get involved. And nonprofits can work with philanthropic partners to fund and staff programs that directly connect with those who typically can be overlooked, making us the best and logical choice in leading and engaging in census activities.
In short, regardless of how the citizenship question litigation turns out, nonprofits need to keep our eyes on the prize of securing a fair, accurate, and compete count that supports our missions and the people we serve.
Tim Delaney is president & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to fit space. For the full version, please visit: nhnonprofits.org