An Accurate Census is Crucial for Effective Community Philanthropy

By William J. Bodine, Mark Brewer and Beth Stipe

The looming court battle over the 2020 Census is positioned by many as a partisan fight over Congressional seats and federal spending.

But as the leaders of philanthropic organizations that are working to improve lives in communities large and small — and in regions that vote both red and blue — the Census isn’t about politics. It’s about making sure we have accurate data that will guide decisions about nearly every dollar we spend.

This week, the state of California sued the Trump administration over its decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census — a question California contends violates the U.S. Constitution.

We stand together in opposing this new question — not because we support illegal immigration, but rather because we have strong concerns that such a question will suppress the government’s efforts to gather a fair and accurate count of the number of people who live in our communities.

Even without this question, recent censuses have undercounted the number of people living in our communities.  And previous Census Bureau directors have said that adding a citizenship question would only exacerbate this problem because it could discourage tens of millions of households from participating. It could also impact other populations — many of which already do not trust the government to represent them fairly.

This proposed change comes at a perilous time for a Census Bureau that is already facing massive challenges. Despite the welcome news that the latest federal budget is increasing funding to the Census Bureau ahead of the 2020 count, the agency is still adjusting to seismic changes in technology, operating without a Senate-confirmed director and grossly underfunded for the task ahead of it.

Simply put, now is not the time to experiment. An accurate census is crucial for our government. It ensures proper representation in Congress and in statehouses nationwide — and it helps determine the allocation of federal and state resources to communities.

But its importance extends far beyond government.

Community foundations — which annually give more than $6.5 billion in grants in communities in every corner of the United States — rely heavily on accurate Census data to make decisions about how to properly invest our resources. The U.S. has more than 800 community foundations, which operate in every Congressional district and we are the largest grant makers in many states.

In Lynchburg, Va., and the surrounding counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell, the Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation relies on accurate census information to ensure that it is an effective steward of its donors’ money. And the nonprofits it supports — grassroots charities such as Meals on Wheels and Daily Bread — make decisions about its services based on these data.

In Washington State, the Community Foundation of North Central Washington partners with its local United Way, government agencies and Eastern Washington University to track the region’s economic vitality, education, health, housing, public safety, and other traits — an effort that aims to improve local decision making about resources and investments.

An inaccurate census jeopardizes the validity of this vital project.

In Orlando, Fla., the Central Florida Foundation uses census data for its most critical grant making programs, such as permanent supportive housing, affordable housing, and impact funds.

Census data has helped the foundation set priorities around helping women who want to create social change, a social enterprise accelerator for young minority and women entrepreneurs who want to build profitable businesses with measurable social impact, and a new approach to family philanthropy aimed at Millennials who are leading the next generation of strategic philanthropy in Central Florida.

Any change that would undermine the success of the census impacts much more than the partisan makeup of our Congress. It impacts lives in every part of our country — from rural Washington state to Orlando, Fla., and every city and town in between.

Certainly, we can tackle the challenges posed by illegal immigration without endangering the success of programs that improve — and save — the lives of vulnerable Americans in our communities.

About the authors:
William J. Bodine is president and CEO of the Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation.
Mark Brewer is president and CEO of the Central Florida Foundation.
Beth Stipe is executive director of the Community Foundation of North Central Washington.

Idit Knaan