Op-ed as published 12/1/19 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch by CEO Ray Ratke
David was kicked out of school for his aggressive behaviors related to autism. Tonya was moved from one foster home to another because many people are reluctant to adopt teens with a history of trauma. Matthew, who has developmental disabilities, was not able to work because employers did not know how to utilize his unique skills. At Lutheran Family Services of Virginia (LFSVA), we saw abundant possibilities for these individuals and helped them work through adversity to create more fulfilling lives.
Every day, we provide educational opportunities, clinical services and developmental supports to children and adults throughout Virginia who experience a variety of challenges. Too often, these individuals have been given the message that they are not valued in our society — or that they don’t count.
It is imperative that when the 2020 census kicks off in a few short months, we let all Virginians know that they do count.
Individuals with disabilities, children in foster care, low-income communities and immigrant families are just a few of the populations deemed hard-to-count by the U.S. Census Bureau because many have been missed in previous counts. These are all people with whom LFSVA interacts regularly through our array of services, as do many other nonprofit and government partners. The 2020 census provides an important opportunity for all of us to work together to make sure Virginia’s count is as accurate as possible.
What’s at stake?
We all are affected by the census. Companies decide where to locate new offices and stores, local governments decide where to build new libraries and schools, and developers decide where to construct new homes, all according to census data.
The individuals and families with whom we work — such as David, Tonya and Matthew — are affected in additional ways: special education services, medical and behavioral health services funded by Medicaid, stipends and counseling to support foster parents, and employment supports for those with disabilities. An undercount of these populations could mean fewer resources for Virginia’s communities to meet the growing needs of our residents.
In 2016, Virginia’s share of federal funding from 55 programs that rely on census data was almost $18 billion. If Virginia’s residents are missed, funds needed for additional classrooms or roads or hospitals will go to other states. We will not be able to correct an undercount for 10 years: The decennial census, which is constitutionally mandated, is the only time the U.S. Census Bureau counts everyone.
What can we do?
Those of us in the public and private sectors who work with hard-to-count populations need to prepare our clients and ensure our workforce is adequately informed.
Foster parents might not realize that they should count the child in foster care as part of their household, even if he or she is living there temporarily. Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who live in a group home need to be counted by the organization that operates the home as part of the Census Bureau’s “group quarters” count.
Immigrant families might not plan to complete the census due to the controversy about including a citizenship question on the form, not realizing the final form does not include this question. Low-income families might fail to include all members of their household if they are doubled up in housing to afford the rent, fearing eviction. We need to let everyone know that there are laws prohibiting U.S. Census Bureau employees from sharing the data — whether with another agency in government or with a private landlord. Large fines and jail time are the consequences.
The 2020 census is the first one that can be completed online, and the U.S. Census Bureau is counting on most residents doing so. Our Minnick Schools serve students in several rural areas where internet access is not a given. Our school staff will be informing these families about where they can go to access the internet, as well as their options for completing the brief survey on the phone or on paper.
Organizations like ours know that the first step in achieving our mission is to see, value and respect each person with whom we work. And in 2020, we have the opportunity to take it a step further and make sure each person is counted in the 2020 census. Will you join us in ensuring an accurate count?