Stand Up and Be Counted: Preparing Students for Census 2020

March 4th, 2020 | Blogs


During a recent webinar about the importance of teaching about the census in the adult education classroom, a participant said this:

If I bring this topic into my classroom, my students will leave and not come back.

That’s how afraid some people are—and also how much misinformation there is—about the 2020 Census.

During the webinar, I had about a minute to reply on the fly. This blog is my extended response.

The Census is Like Every Other Civics Opportunity

Perhaps the most important response to this comment is that when we teach about the census, we are NOT telling people what to do. We may have a bias that we think the census matters, and that might show when we teach, and that is fine. But we should always be 100% clear that we are not saying whether or how people should fill out the census. We are sharing information about a key current event that is getting a lot of attention in our communities and in the news that only happens every ten years. We think this presents productive and relevant learning opportunities that help teach civics, basic skills, U.S. government, and digital literacy. That is why we are teaching about it in the classroom – not because we want students to do as we say.

The Census Will Make a Big Difference in Our Students’ Lives

The census is used by the government to determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress and how much federal money each state will get for key programs that we all depend on. Furthermore, businesses use population figures to decide where to locate. If your community is undercounted, companies are less likely to locate there (depriving the community of new jobs), and the government will allocate fewer funds for schools, healthcare, transportation, etc. With fewer jobs and fewer benefits, students will be that much worse off.

Private Information is Protected by Law

Title 13 of the U.S. Code forbids the Census Bureau from sharing private information with any other government agency, including law enforcement and immigration. Census workers take an oath of confidentiality, which they are bound to for life, and there are serious repercussions for breaking this oath. The census does not ask about citizenship or immigration status. Could hackers or even government agencies look at the data and use the information to try to pin down neighborhoods where, say, non-English speakers live? The Census Bureau is guarding against this by “injecting noise” into the data – meaning mixing up key bits of information so that the overall “big picture” statistics still tell an accurate story, but do not lead to details about any one person or family. Of course there are no guarantees. The government – particularly during wartime – has misused census data. However, civil liberties groups and grassroots organizations are mobilizing to be ready to respond if there is any threat of the government misusing data.

It’s Our Census and Our Democracy

Like any form of civic participation, the census is only as strong as we make it. And we “make” it not just by participating in it, but by shaping it to be the way we want it. When President Trump pushed for the census to include a question about citizenship, grassroots communities responded and protested against it. The Supreme Court eventually struck it from the census. In the past, when ethnic or racial groups felt they weren’t counted properly, they organized to change the questions on the census. The census may be required by law, but it is not written in stone. It is a fluid civics opportunity, subject to the pressures of organized people. We can organize to determine how the census is used and to enforce protections against its misuse.

That is the ultimate civics lesson: the call is not to dutifully fill out a form. The call is to understand this civics moment and respond to it.

Lots of people may have misgivings about filling out the census. Our job as teachers is to share information so students can make an educated decision about whether and how to engage.

Resources for Teaching about the Census:

  • The New England Literacy Resource Center’s Stand Up and Be Counted — source for program and classroom materials, including this replica of the online questionnaire, with vocabulary and explanations of questions
  • This excerpt of student writing on the census (freely available online) from The Change Agent’s current issue, “Stand Up and Be Counted” (you need an online subscription for the whole issue), as well as Lesson Packets #19-22, also freely available.
  • The National Coalition for Literacy’s Pledge to Be Counted, along with more resources.

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