Throughout US history, “liberty and justice for all” has really meant “liberty and justice for some.” Since our nation’s founding, America has denied equity, justice, and voice to underserved and marginalized communities. But an accurate 2020 Census count is our opportunity to tell the government, “I exist, I matter, and I must be accounted for.” That opportunity is under threat with the Supreme Court ruling this week that allows the Trump administration to end the count Thursday.
Once every 10 years, the US Constitution mandates that every person in the country be counted. The data are supposed to capture every community, every story, and every human life. It allocates funding for hospitals, community centers, and schools, and it defines congressional representation for the next decade.
But the census repeatedly undercounts communities of color. In 2010, the census missed 9 percent of Black people in the United States — a failing that was actually considered an improvement over prior efforts. Skewed results steal political representation from undercounted communities, ensuring they are denied resources for the programs people need to survive.
Census data are how congressional representation is apportioned. Massachusetts isn’t at a high risk of losing a House seat, but communities of color can still be underrepresented in local offices if they aren’t properly counted.
Every missed person also represents $2,400 in lost federal funding over the next 10 years. Boston has some of the lowest census return rates in the country. That may prove destructive for the city’s residents who rely on Medicare and Medicaid, food programs, low-income childcare, and other federally funded programs that use census statistics to distribute resources.
And for Boston’s public schools, inaccurate data may lead to underfunding an educational system in which we already underinvest. Black children are two times as likely to be missed in the census as non-Black children. In the 2010 Census, 47,000 Latinx children weren’t counted in Los Angeles County alone, with more than 113,000 missed across California. Every student we fail to count is one whose future we dismiss.
An undercount will undercut opportunity for children. It will undermine families’ access to key programs. And it will underrepresent communities whose voices have been erased through centuries of structural inequality and racism.
In Boston, we have conducted a grass-roots, multilingual campaign to get all of our diverse residents counted, despite the many barriers to outreach presented by COVID-19.
The Trump administration has tried disrupting the census at least twice. Last year, it attempted to add a question about citizenship to scare undocumented immigrants from responding. It withdrew the question after the Supreme Court blocked the move. This year, the Trump administration pushed to end the census early.
Until recently, courts have been able to protect the annual count. But the Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday halting the 2020 Census count shows that we can no longer rely on our justice system to ensure a full and complete count.
We cannot stop until every voice counts equally. The demographic information and individual affirmation of an accurate census is part of our fight to break down systems that dilute American democracy — from gerrymandering to the Electoral College to felony disenfranchisement. A Republican minority cannot continue to leverage these antidemocratic practices to impose its will on the majority of Americans.
The Supreme Court may have halted the census early, but there is still time for Congress to act. The House of Representatives has passed legislation to extend the deadline for reporting census data to Congress. The Senate must do the same. The very foundation of our democracy is at stake.
Edward J. Markey is the junior US senator for Massachusetts. Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.