Numbers Count in Democracy

Monday, April 18, 2016

The was a plummet in household income for blacks in Minnesota by 14 percent from 2013 to 2014. At the same time, the statewide poverty rate for black residents deepened from 33 to 38 percent, triple the overall state poverty rate that has held fairly steady at around 11 percent since 2009.

This news made headlines in late 2015. While community leaders shared their deep concerns, they also reminded Minnesotans that this disparity has been with us for some time. The real news was that the gap has continued to grow at such an alarming rate.

Legislators leapt into action, convening a working group chaired by House and Senate leaders to develop legislative proposals to reverse racial disparity trends for 2016 consideration. Hundreds showed up to explain the problems and propose solutions during a six-hour hearing.

Governor Dayton, who initially seemed surprised by the news, quickly got to work developing his own plans. And closing the wide racial disparities ultimately became one of the four priorities for action cited in his 2016 State of the State address and a cornerstone of the supplemental budget submitted to the legislature for action.

Data Drive Decisions

The reordering of public priorities was caused by the fall 2015 release of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of the American Community Survey (ACS). The detailed socioeconomic information now collected by the ACS annually was until recently collected every ten years via the long-form census questionnaire. The information is of paramount importance to state and local governments, businesses, community planners and researchers.

In fact, of the 41 indicators included in the annual Minnesota Compass report, 13 are drawn directly from the ACS, and another 11 depend on a reliable census. According to Craig Helmsetter, senior research manager, Wilder Research, “The annual Minnesota Compass key indicators report would be a ‘Swiss cheese’ document without the ACS.”

Minnesota grantmakers led the development of Minnesota Compass as a resource for community leaders, because they wanted and needed a reliable source of information on community issues. Decision makers in government, business and civic groups throughout the state rely on Minnesota Compass data to make informed decisions and track impact. Without a robust and fully-funded census and ACS, this critical decision-making tool simply would not exist.

Beyond informing policy choices, much of the nitty gritty of how our communities function relies on the census. Allocation of federal and state dollars to communities around the state is guided by formulas grounded in the census and ACS, legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn using the data, and the credibility of decisions from city halls to the halls of Congress depend on it.

Shrinking Representation

In fact, after the 2010 census, Minnesota was the only state in the upper Midwest not to lose congressional representation. If not for an extraordinary effort to achieve an inclusive count, Minnesota’s congressional representation would likely have shrunk from eight to seven districts. Recent projections show that Minnesota’s risk of losing representation is even greater in 2020.

Less congressional representation, decreasing federal dollars for Minnesota families and less capacity to make smart business and public policy choices are all immediate concerns of census watchers in Minnesota. The 2020 census may seem a long ways off, but in reality, choices are already being made that will determine Minnesota’s outcome in the nation’s next decennial count.

Big Changes in 2020

Earlier this year, representatives from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Midwest Regional Office came to the Minnesota Council of Foundations and described (for nonprofit and grantmaking leaders) changes to the 2020 census currently being field tested. Charged by Congress to do more with less, the Census Bureau is introducing an internet response option and significantly reducing the number of field workers available to connect with respondents in hard-to-reach communities. While confident in the new system’s design, many questions remain.

Congress also presents an ongoing challenge, as it annually threatens to shift course with policy changes and budget cuts. Proposals to cut the census’ 2016 budget by 40 percent and undermine the effectiveness of the annual ACS by converting it to a voluntary survey were dropped, but similar political tests are expected to return in the years leading to 2020.

Accuracy Requires Resources

“The Census Bureau was brought back from the brink of fiscal disaster,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, co-director of The Census Project and consultant for the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation’s Funders Census Initiative 2020.

“A shift to using the internet as the primary response mode, drawing from administrative records rather than field canvassing to count hard-to-reach and historically undercounted communities, and a reduction in the infrastructure for follow-up visits are all big changes,” she says. “Without the resources to get this right, we will get less accurate data.”

Lowenthal is particularly concerned about the effects of these changes, if poorly executed, on the accuracy of data about citizens based on race, ethnicity and language, stable housing and remote geographic location.

Count Depends on Community-based Mobilization

However, Minnesota has a champion fighting for an accurate count. Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS) is a network of approximately 200 business, government and nonprofit groups focused on educating Minnesota’s Congressional delegation about the value of the census and the ACS and the urgent need to ensure that Minnesota gets it right in 2020.

“Thanks to the work of Joan Naymark and MACS, Minnesota probably has the best educated Congressional delegation on the census of any state,” says Lowenthal. “Now we need to replicate the work in 49 other states.”

The Bauman Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based grantmaker working to promote civic engagement, stepped up to help extend MACS’ model by supporting development of a toolkit and national trainings to organize and mobilize similar community advocacy efforts around the country.

Make Your Voice Heard

The executive director of The Bauman Foundation Gary Bass suggests that in addition to supporting MACS, MCF and Minnesota grantmakers must make their voices heard in the federal budget process to ensure the 2020 census is kept on track, encourage Minnesota legislators to invest now to prepare for the census, and start to plan and fund to create the community-based mobilization required for an accurate 2020 count.

Achieving a vision of inclusion and equity for all Minnesotans depends upon everyone having a say about who makes the policies that shape their day-to-day lives. No doubt about it: the census counts.

Part of the Spring 2016 Giving Forum