The heat of the battle over the addition of a question about citizenship status on the census might overshadow the importance of the 2020 count for the city and to Pennsylvania — but it shouldn’t. The constitutionally mandated count of every person in the country every 10 years is the basis for the breakdown of the Electoral College, the House of Representatives, and voting districts. It is also used to decide how $675 billion in federal funds each year are allocated among the states.
But a manipulated census can also be a tool for stacking the decks for one political party, or one racial group over another, which is why civil rights advocates sued the government over the proposed addition of the citizenship question. Early this week, a federal judge ruled that evidence about the origins of the citizenship question — and the suggestion that it be used to favor Republicans — merits further scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is still due to rule on the legality of the question.
The political stakes of the census are particularly high for Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.
Currently, Pennsylvania is worth 20 Electoral College votes in presidential elections. That’s 18 fewer than Pennsylvania had 100 years ago. Similarly, our current delegation to Congress includes 18 representatives; before the 1930s census, we had 36. There is a real risk that after the 2020 census, the congressional delegation will lose a seat or two. One factor is that the state’s population is growing more slowly than the population of other states. But another factor is what we should all be worried about: an undercount.
The citizenship question makes that a real threat in 2020, since it could keep many undocumented immigrants (and some documented) from participating, fearing that the government will use the information against them. (Though the law prohibits using data for reasons beyond statistical.)
Undercounting directly translates to less political power and less federal funding.
If undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia — estimated to number 50,000 — decided not to respond to the census, that would translate to a loss of $1 billion in federal funding a year.
Both the state and the city are working to ensure a complete count. The state’s census commission asked for $1 for each person who will be counted — over $12 million total. That should be a no-brainer, considering that billions of federal dollars are on the line over the next decade. In January, Mayor Jim Kenney established Philly Counts 2020, the city’s effort to count, and the Complete Count Committee, which the mayor heads. Philly Counts 2020 will be in charge of hiring and coordinating the work of more than 3,000 temporary workers.
We have 10 months before the postcards asking residents to fill out the census will arrive to Pennsylvania homes. But it’s not too early for the census to be on everyone’s mind. The state should provide appropriate funding for a count, the city should continue its preparations, and every person in Philadelphia — and beyond — should start paying attention to what’s at stake if they don’t get counted.