The Census is far from 2020

The impact each decennial Census has on our country can never be understated. With less than three years before the 2020 U.S. Census, our focus on securing a full and accurate count of all residents living in our country seems to have shifted due to a cacophony of other pressing concerns. So much of our work in public relations, marketing and advertising depends on the big data that is provided from a successful census, yet we as communicators have largely remained silent on pressing the White House and Congress to pay closer attention to ensuring that the Census has the full support and resources that it needs to ensure full participation. 

Rising costs and a declining public response rates by mail are reshaping plans for how the 2020 U.S. Census will be rolled out. However, the bureau has been hindered by a weak and inadequate budget, a major leadership change at the top, and a planned move to secure greater public participation online.  

While an online response campaign may save the federal government some hard costs, convincing a weary public to share personal data online may be harder to achieve in 2020 than anyone can imagine. Not a day goes by without seeing another news report about foreign hackers retrieving personal data from companies who should have the best online defense protocols. Or even worse are the news reports of foreign governments interfering in one of our most sacred rights as citizens — to participate in a fair and free electoral process. With heightened consumer concerns over privacy and personal security, the U.S. Census Bureau will need to devote even more time and resources to allay public concerns over the security of its online portal.

There are some bright spots for 2020. The next Census is expected to offer new opportunities to learn more about diverse populations that are changing the complexion of America. The Census Bureau tested a new approach to counting Hispanics in 2015. During that test, respondents were able to self-identify only as Hispanic and did not have to select a subsequent racial category such as African/black, Asian, white and/or American Indian/Alaska Native. As a result of this test, the number of people self-identifying as Hispanic rose dramatically. If a bureau recommendation is confirmed, Latinos will be able to self-identify first as Hispanics, and then check another box/boxes such as Colombian, Cuban, Dominican, Mexican/Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran and/or write in their cultural heritage. 

In addition to the bureau’s recommended changes for the Hispanic community, the 2020 Census may also include a self-identification category for individuals who are of Middle-Eastern or North-African heritage, which could alter population figures for non-Hispanic whites, African Americans and Asians. In previous census counts, individuals who traced their heritage to the Middle East or North Africa had to choose from other racial/ethnic categories that were not always an easy fit.

But none of these important changes will matter if President Donald J. Trump, Congress and the U.S. Department of Commerce do not adequately fund the 2020 U.S. Census to ensure that there is a full and accurate count of all U.S. residents. Statements from the White House, members of the cabinet and from several members of Congress have had a chilling effect on the mood of our country. Statements from President Trump have cast suspicion on immigrants, undocumented residents, Muslims, transgender individuals and others, heightening fear and raising ethnic, racial and religious tensions throughout the country. The rising level of fear and tension will have an adverse impact on securing the full participation needed for the 2020 U.S. Census, as more immigrants, undocumented residents and Muslims will avoid participating in a government-sponsored program to collect their personal information that could be used against them in the future.

If the census is to succeed, the federal government will need to ratchet down its rhetoric about immigrants, undocumented residents and people who hail from majority-Muslim countries. At the same time, President Trump and federal officials will need to allocate the necessary funds to ensure and reassure all residents, regardless of their status, that their personal information is protected by law and will remain private and confidential. Trust is hard to rebuild once it is lost, and the public’s trust is needed to secure an accurate count in 2020. 

The public relations and communications industry must weigh in on this discussion to help restore public trust in institutions such as the U.S. Census Bureau. Without our involvement and active engagement, we’ll lose the vital big data that adds texture to our work. We’ll also miss our chance to advocate for a full and accurate count of every resident of the U.S., whose data we need to advance business, plan new communities, restructure and revitalize existing communities, fuel innovation and job growth, and keep our industry fresh and vibrant. 

Hindsight is 20/20. However, none of us in the PR world can afford to remain silent until after 2020. With less than three years before the 2020 U.S. Census, the time to act is now.

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