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Get counted in the census — in the name of fairness and justice

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By: Sasha Naiman, Deputy Director and Attorney at OJPC

OJPC works for to protect the rights and dignity of people who have had contact with the criminal legal system – including those who are incarcerated and those who are in the community. One way for people with criminal records to become fully-engaged members of the community, to be counted and represented, is through the Census.

Your voice matters.


WHY DO PEOPLE COMPLETE THE CENSUS?

The concept of the census stems from the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 2), which mandates that the country counts its population every 10 years. Today, the census is largely governed by Title 13 of the U.S. Code. The 2020 Census marks the 24th time that America has counted its population – since the first-ever census in 1790. Many things about the census have changed over time, making it very important to participate.

There are 3 key reasons to fill out the 2020 Census:

1. POLITICAL POWER & REPRESENTATION: Census results are used to allocate the number of “seats”, and to re-draw district lines, for Congressional Representatives, Ohio legislature, and local entities.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, there are 435 seats total, apportioned based on each state’s population (as a fraction of the whole country). States do not have a permanent claim to their current number of House seats. Based on some forecasts, the 2020 Census will result in southern and western states gaining seats—and political power—at the expense of northeastern and midwestern states. Ohio, specifically, is at risk of losing a seat, based on projections. That means Ohio also will have one less electoral college seat.

Equally importantly, within the state, population distribution impacts how areas are represented in the Ohio General Assembly. Census data is a key basis for how the Ohio Redistricting Commission can re-draw legislative districts. Getting overlooked in the census means getting less power in the state legislature.

At a local level, census data can be used by boards, commissions, and other local entities, to draw districts and apportion seats.

2. FUNDING: Census results influence the amount of funding that state governments and local communities receive from the federal government for the next decade.

The 2020 Census results will be used to target at least $800 billion annually in federal assistance to states, localities, and families. (In FY2016, for example, Ohio received over $33 billion in federal funds, based on data from the 2010 Census.) Ohioans get funding for numerous programs based, in whole or in part, on census-derived data. This includes Medicaid, highway planning and construction, Special Education Grants to states, Title I Grants to Local Education Agencies, the National School Lunch Program, Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, low income home energy assistance, Community Services Block Grant, as well as parts of Section 8 housing program. These programs are incredibly important – and, if you want them in your community, you need to get counted!

3. COMMUNITY DECISIONS: Census results can inform government and nonprofit decisions.

Decision-makers in governments, private sector, and nonprofit organizations rely on decennial census data to determine the community needs, like new roads, hospitals, schools, housing, health care services, business investment, and public sector investments. Results guide community decision-making for the next 10 years!


 HOW ARE INCARCERATED PEOPLE COUNTED?

The Census counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the prison- or jail-location. It is important to note that most people in Ohio prisons come from the major cities, but the bulk of the prisons are in outlying areas. There are many good reasons to count the exact number and demographics of people in prisons and jails. At the same time, the current census strategy inflates the rural population where there is a prison, while reducing the count in the areas where most prisoners come from and return to. While over 90% of people held in state prison return home after their release, their actual place of residence is not reflected in the census and, thus, may have less funding for services.

For Hamilton County, in 2010, that meant more than 5,000 people were ‘lost’ – or rather counted in a prison in another county. Meanwhile, in a rural Ohio county, about 3-8% of the population might be in prison; and while prisoners can’t vote, that county gets added weight toward districting for representation in the State General Assembly and program-funding for its residents beyond the prison walls.

This makes it all-the-more important for the family and local community members of incarcerated people to fill out the Census, retaining their access to the three things explained above: political representation, funding for crucial programs, and influence over community decisions. When people come home from incarceration, their localities and neighborhoods would have take every opportunity to be ‘counted’. 


WHO ARE THE “UNDERCOUNTED” PEOPLE?

The Census Bureau estimates that 19.2% of people in Ohio did not respond to the 2010 Census.

People who are at higher risk of not being properly counted in the census are called “hard-to-count” or “undercounted.” If their information is not reflected in census data, they can have unequal political representation, unequal impact on policy-decision-making, and unequal access to vital public and private resources – for themselves and their communities.

Groups that are undercounted include: racial and ethnic minorities, people with low or no incomes, homeless people, and immigrants. While we do not have statistics specifically about people with criminal records, there are many reasons to believe that they are undercounted as well.

It is especially important to note that, while African-Americans people are disproportionately harmed by the criminal-legal system and mass incarceration, they are were historically undercounted in the decennial census. Studies estimate that the 2010 Census undercounted the African-American population by more than 800,000, with African-American men being more undercounted than any other racial/ethnic group. About 7% of African-American children were overlooked by the 2010 Census results – roughly twice the rate of white children. As a result, the community’s needs may not be represented or prioritized according to their real share of the population.

This has been true from the first Census: The original text of the U.S. Constitution, which created the census, specifically and shamefully instructed that slaves should be counted as “three-fifths” of a person. This was changed through the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which respectively, ended slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” and granted citizenship to all people born in the United States including formerly-enslaved people. The legacy of slavery, as seen in our current criminal-legal system and historical undercounting of African-Americans in the census, has to be addressed seriously, intentionally, and openly.

OJPC has spent 23 years proudly advocating for the rights and dignity of people with criminal records – both who are incarcerated and who are in the community. As an organization, we work hard to elevate the voices and power of our clients, and of all people impacted by the legal system. This is why we’re posting about the Census and asking you to get counted in 2020, at federal, state, and local levels. We hope that the people we serve will complete the Census – leveraging power and funding for families, communities, and neighborhoods who are too-often undercounted. There is a lot of work left to do, to create an equitable and just society; and this is one clear way to take steps in the right direction.


WHAT DOES THE CENSUS ASK?

The questionnaire ASKS A FEW SIMPLE QUESTIONS about the number, age(s), sex(es), and race(s)/ethnicities of the people staying in your household, their relationship, the type of household (house, apartment, mobile home; rented or owned), and your address and phone number. That’s all!

The Census DOES NOT ASK about citizenship status, criminal records, or past incarceration. It also does not ask for your social security number and does not ask for money.

Your ANSWERS WILL NOT BE SHARED WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT OR USED AGAINST YOU for benefits-distribution. The government’s Census website specifically states: “The law prevents the Census Bureau from sharing your information with law enforcement. Your answers cannot be used to impact your eligibility for government benefits. Your answers are only used to create statistics about our country. The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code to protect your personal information and keep it strictly confidential. That’s every answer, to every question.”

HOW DO I COMPLETE THE CENSUS?

You can complete your Census questionnaire online, by phone, or by mail – and it takes about 5 minutes! You can get all of the details at https://2020census.gov/en/ways-to-respond.html.