Editor’s Note: Stacey Abrams is the founder of Fair Count and Fair Fight, and a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives. America Ferrera is an activist, actor, director, producer and co-founder of Harness, an advocacy organization engaging artists in social change. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
On both a societal and individual level, the last few months have been daunting yet enlightening – exhausting yet motivating.
While struggling through a global pandemic, we faced the reality that racism in our health care and criminal justice system continue to cripple the lives of Black people across the nation. As we hear people across the world cry out “Black Lives Matter,” it is the constant reminder that we are in pain; we are grieving; and, at times, we are struggling to find hope.
Protestors all across this nation are advocating an uprooting of systemic inequities that have left too many behind for generations. As we protest in the streets and in our workplaces, we must leverage every element of our democracy that can ensure lasting change for our communities. Demonstrations express our collective feelings of frustration and despair at the current system. In order to enact and fund the change we demand, the tools for progress are clear: voting this fall and getting our communities counted in the 2020 census.
Voting and filling out the census may seem irrelevant given the magnitude of the issues we face. Yet, in a democracy, these are the first steps of a long-term process that put us on the path toward justice and equity – especially the census. Every ten years, the US Constitution mandates that we count every person in the United States – regardless of citizenship, an aspect upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019.
Based on who gets included in the count, the data received is used to allocate more than $1.5 trillion dollars in federal funds annually. This money goes to our local hospitals, schools and infrastructure projects. It goes to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. The census is also used to draw political districts and school zones. It even indicates to businesses where there are opportunities for economic development and community growth.
In short, the 2020 census will dictate the next decade of our lives in real and compelling ways. We cannot overstate its importance. No one should underestimate its power to drive concrete, transformative change for Black, brown, indigenous and immigrant communities who are historically undercounted.
When we are not counted, the money meant for our community goes elsewhere. Think about the well-funded schools in more affluent neighborhoods, while nearby schools in low-income communities struggle to meet students’ needs. The distribution of funding for some of the programs meant to close these gaps – from special education and Title 1 grants to the National School Lunch Program and Head Start – are all based on who gets counted and who doesn’t.
Our political districts are much the same way. If certain populations are not included in the census count, the lines that determine who we get to vote for are skewed – dividing us in a way that does not reflect the true diversity of our communities.
The current protests in our country are a direct result of the frustration and anger that have built up over time through political disenfranchisement and inadequate resources. Progress is about power. The undercounting of these communities has resulted in the absence of fair representation, political might and adequate resources – which is why we must get counted in the 2020 census.
Between now and October 31 – the last day for online, phone and mailed self-responses for the census – you are going to see and hear a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering tactics. Ignore it. Anyone living in the United States as of April 1, 2020, can be counted in the census without fear. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot use census information against immigrant communities. And law enforcement cannot use it against Black and brown neighborhoods. The information you provide in the census is confidential for 72 years, and they blend the data so government officials can’t find your individual personalized information. In fact, it is illegal for a government official to attempt to do so.
When Black and brown communities are not counted, we give people in charge permission to ignore us and our needs. The 2020 census is a way to take back our power: the power to advocate for ourselves and make our voices heard. Harness that power by being counted.