by Anitra D. Brown

Group portrait of multi generation black family at home

Imagine preparing dinner for 20 confirmed guests. Instead, 100 people show up at your house to eat.

You can’t turn them away. They will remain in your home while dinner is served, and they all expect to eat. Of course, your resources will be stretched. Most folk will not be able to get enough food to fill their bellies. Some may not eat at all.

This is one way Arthur Walton, director of Intergovernmental Relations for the city of New Orleans, illustrates what happens in communities like New Orleans and across the country when the people that live there do not complete the U.S. Census, the official count of every resident in the United States and all five U.S. territories taken every 10 years.

And the time to complete it is ticking away. The deadline to complete the Census had been extended to Oct. 31 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in a move many critics believe was designed to purposefully lead to undercounting in communities of color, rural areas and among immigrants, the Trump administration in August reinstated the original deadline of Sept. 30.  With that deadline looming, Walton is encouraging every resident in New Orleans to take 10 minutes to answer nine questions and be counted.

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Walton is not alone. Over the past several weeks, PSAs, featuring individuals from Mayor LaToya Cantrell to Bounce music’s Queen Diva Big Freedia have been airing on television and social media, reminding residents, especially those who are a part of historically underserved communities, just how important the Census is.

To be sure, the results of this census are vital for New Orleans, where responses to the 2010 tally were low with many New Orleanians still dispersed across the nation as a result of Hurricane Katrina or in the throes of recovering and rebuilding at home.

As of Sept. 10, the response rate to the Census in Orleans Parish was 56.9 percent. Of course, the ideal goal would be to have 100 percent of the city’s residents, including children, counted. Still, local officials have set a modest 70 percent response rate, says Walton.

“We’re getting there,” he says. “As you know, in 2010, we were still in transition from Katrina, so we have surpassed those numbers. And we have surpassed 2000’s numbers. Everybody wants to have 100 percent, but it’s not possible, so we set a reasonable goal of getting to as close to 70 as we could. And we’re still pushing.”

Why It’s So Important

The results of the Census help determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding flow into communities every year for the next decade. Census results influence highway planning and construction, money for buses, subways, and other public transit systems, as well as funding to police and fire departments. They help determine how money is allocated to a community for any number of federal programs, including Head Start, Pell Grants, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), special education grants to states, Community Development Block Grants, Title I grants to local education agencies, Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, and countless others.

“Now is the time to make sure we count,” Walton says. “We are in a pandemic. Our health resources are dependent on the number of people that are counted.”

Walton says the focus now is on getting members of historically hard-to-count communities to respond to the Census.

“They are hard to count for a reason, and it has been historical. So what we are trying to put everyone on notice and not single out anybody. Our efforts however are focused on the hard-to-count communities. For instance, we have RTA bus signage, but the Census signs aren’t on all the buses. We have targeted where we are putting these signs.”

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality outlines those populations as communities of color, young children, renters, people experiencing homelessness, and low-income families—in short, the very communities that stand to benefit most from many of the federal programs whose funding is determined by the Census count.

And an interactive map on the Center’s website indicates that significant areas of both Orleans and Jefferson parishes, including New Orleans East, parts of Uptown and Algiers, Kenner, and most of the west bank communities in Jefferson Parish are at high to very high risk of not counting young children in their communities.

Walton echoes those findings.

“Communities of color are the most often undercounted, and children from ages one to five are the most undercounted group. Head Start Centers are primarily federally funded. If you are not counting yourself and your children, that is going to have a direct impact on the lives of children in the Black community. We’re telling the federal government that we have 100 children when we really have 500 children. But when the federal government cuts a check for the children, they are cutting it for 100 children. Now, anybody with a family knows you have to feed everyone in the house with that. So it goes to the example of why don’t we have enough Head Start centers or enough spaces at centers for all of the children—because they think we only have 100 children.”

Walton is also calling for a community-wide effort to encourage and assist family, friends, and neighbors in completing the Census.

“Because the Census has been pushed by to its original date amid the pandemic, we are looking for community outreach and we are asking for a community effort as if this were an emergency in New Orleans,” Walton said. “When there is a hurricane watch, you are looking out for your neighbor. This is that type of situation.”

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