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Churches helping ensure ‘everyone counts’ in the U.S. census

Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference members holding a photo shoot at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City to promote Native American participation in the 2020 U.S. census. Courtesy of Ginny Underwood.
Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference members holding a photo shoot at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City to promote Native American participation in the 2020 U.S. census. Courtesy of Ginny Underwood.

The United States Constitution mandates that every 10 years a national census be taken to count the total number of people living in each state, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. The data collected determines the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the number of electors in the Electoral College. The census also determines the distribution of federal government funds and provides vital information for lawmakers/public servants, economists and businesses.

During March, the Census Bureau mailed invitations to every U.S. household to complete and submit its data. April 1 was the designated Census Day for submitting information, although it can still be done. In May through July, census workers will go to door-to-door to collect information from households that did not respond earlier online or by telephone or mail. Times are also set for counting people experiencing homelessness and for those living in-group settings, such as nursing homes or prisons or on college campuses.

Be counted

The United Methodist Church advocates for fair representation and just distribution of government resources to all. Local congregations and the General Board of Church and Society are encouraging people to participate in the census and working to allay fears that the information collected might be used to harm those responding. 

Raul Alegría, a member of Brentwood (Tennessee) United Methodist Church and of the Church and Society board, considers the census vital to ensuring equitable distribution of power and resources.

“I’ve moved around a lot and taken the census while living in a number of different states,” he said. “Often minorities’ communities go undercounted, including families or households where some members may be undocumented. But many of these communities also place a lot of trust in their church, so they are probably more likely to fill out their census information if their pastor or members of their congregation ensure them that it is safe.”

Efforts in 2018 and 2019 to add a citizenship question to the census document would likely have caused undercounting of immigrants. That effort was defeated. The 2020 U.S. census does not ask whether respondents are U.S. citizens. All personal data gathered from the census is protected by Title 13 of the U.S. Code and cannot be released to any third party, including other government or law enforcement agencies or courts of law.

While the census is intended to ensure fair representation across the United States, the counting has not always fulfilled expectations. Estimates are the 2010 census failed to count over 1 million children under 4. The census also frequently undercounts minorities and low-income households.

In 2010, 4.9% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives were left out, making them the most undercounted racial-ethnic demographic. The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC) is working with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition to help Native American households in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, complete their census data.

“70% of Native Americans live in urban areas today,” said the Rev. David Wilson, OIMC superintendent. “We are hosting gatherings in our local churches where we will have iPADs available for people to use to fill out their information with volunteers to help them,” said Wilson.

Recently the conference hosted a photo shoot for a campaign to help publicize the census among the Native American community

How churches can help

“Low income households and immigrant families are often undercounted due in large part to ingrained mistrust toward government, but also because it’s sometimes difficult to get the proper information to these communities,” said the Rev. Joe Tognetti, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Rio Grande City, Texas.

The church received a grant from Church and Society to help raise awareness of the importance of the census within its community. In partnership with local leaders and institutions such as city government, libraries, hospitals and economic development groups, Rio Grande City First is using its print and online media to promote the census. It is also planned informal gatherings with the neighborhood to share information and answer questions.

Churches in neighborhoods with many who do not speak or read English might consider hosting events post-social distancing where people can complete the census. While guides to completing the census are available in 59 languages on the website, people can respond online or by phone in only 13 languages. The paper form is available only in English and Spanish.

“From a Christian perspective, I see it as a simple way of loving our neighbors. It is a crucial way of ensuring our community gets its fair share of resources in terms of democratic power, education, health care and other services. Not participating in the census will hurt communities,” Tognetti said.

Your church can help ensure every person in your community is counted in the 2020 U.S. census. These resources will get you started.

United Methodist resources

Faith in Public Action resources

Informational resources

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.