Statement on the U.S. Census and the Arts

At the Americans for the Arts’ Annual Convention this past June, quite a few members voiced concern about the upcoming U.S. Census. In many communities, there is worry that an inaccurate count could negatively impact towns, cities, regions, and even states, and disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized.

This blog is meant to give information on the Census, its impact, and what arts and culture agencies across the United States are doing to ensure a comprehensive and equitable count. The U.S. Census is a consequential tool for distributing time, attention, and money in all sorts of ways—including ways that are deeply impactful on the arts. It is also an increasingly politicized tool, and as we round the corner into the 2020 U.S. Census, it is important to understand what the U.S. Census is, what it influences, what the implication of certain proposed changes could be both generally and for the arts, and how arts and culture agencies and organizations are mobilizing to ensure a fair, full, and unthreatening U.S. Census count.

What is the U.S. Census?

The U.S. Census is a population count mandated by the U.S. Constitution to take place every 10 years, which is used to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives, draw legislative districts, and distribute approximately $800 billion in federal funds annually. Until this latest U.S. Census, it has been conducted primarily through person-to-person interactions or via letter. In 2020, about 80 percent of recipients will be given the option of completing the Census online. All information gathered is confidential, although not necessarily anonymous—the quantity of information gathered is such that it is sometimes possible to extrapolate individual responses.

Completion of the U.S. Census by every household is required, although the fines associated with non-compliance are relatively negligible and inconsistently enforced: if a person does not complete the full U.S. Census, they may be fined up to $100; if they fully refuse to take part, they may be fined up to $500.

What does the U.S. Census influence?

As noted above, the original reasoning for the U.S. Census was to allot representation in the House of Representatives and for certain distribution of funds. House representation has become particularly important since the adoption of a standard 435 Representatives, as it means that every 10 years population shifts can reduce or increase the number of Representatives in any given state. As a result of the 2020 U.S. Census, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota will likely lose seats, while Florida, Texas, and Colorado are likely to gain seats.

Census data is also the primary data on the national population for federal, state, and local governments. This means it is used to, among other things: monitor compliance with demographics-associated laws like the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and other anti-discrimination ordinances; distribute resources to areas with high concentrations of vulnerable populations including low-income, elderly, and disabled; draw legislative boundaries for federal, state, and local elections based on population density and demographics; determine the placement of new schools, roads, hospitals, libraries, water and sewage lines, and other public utilities; and help public health, environmental, and disaster preparedness officials to anticipate, analyze, and mitigate future risks.

U.S. Census data is also highly utilized by private businesses and foundations. The U.S. Census is used to forecast demand and predict trends; determine locations of future businesses, including core businesses like grocery stores, factories, and clothing stores; ensure compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunities Act; and determine shifts in financial allocation, population focus, and success metrics. The U.S. Census also serves as an important starting component for a variety of other recurring government surveys, each of which has its own set of impacts.

What will the impacts of the 2020 U.S. Census be for the arts and culture field?

The 2020 U.S. Census has the potential to impact the distribution of dollars from the federal cultural agencies, as well as the distribution of arts-related funds from other departments such as the Department of Education and the State Department. In the case of the National Endowment for the Arts, the 40 percent of the agency’s budget mandated for distribution to state arts agencies is in large part determined on a per capita basis. Population density and demographics can also impact the placing of cultural facilities, transportation planning, zoning, and project prioritization. Population-based funding allocations exist throughout the government, including in the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, etc., all of which also have pockets of funds that in part stream to the arts. Additionally, special government grants also are given to areas with large populations of historically marginalized communities. If the U.S. Census doesn’t get an accurate count of these populations, then arts organizations engaged with those populations could be hindered in the amount of money they can get through government grants.

As with other types of funding and policy, arts-related funding and policy is partially determined by the density and demographics of populations. Depending on how the count breaks down, some of the seats likely to be redistributed from state to state may impact pro-arts delegations, the general balance of power in both federal and state legislatures, and future arts funding and policy.

What is going on with the 2020 U.S. Census, including questions about citizenship? What are the possible implications for those changes, and are there ways of mitigating negative impacts that I should be aware of?

The U.S. Census has become an increasingly politicized policy mechanism, particularly as data analysis has made it more and more useful in decision making. U.S. Census data has long been used to identify demographic concentrations for legislative representation, funding allocation, etc. There is concern, however, that broad identification of concentrations of certain groups—for example high-concentration Latino and/or non-citizen populations—could put those populations at risk.

In March 2018, the Trump administration announced plans to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 U.S. Census. Advocates for the question claim it is necessary to fulfill the core functions of the Census and better enforce the Voting Rights Act, while detractors claim adding such a question is thinly-veiled effort to scare non-citizens into not participating and generally depress participation from historically marginalized communities, impacting representation and funds distribution to those communities for the next 10 years.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the stated rationale of the Trump administration, and senior administration officials indicated they would print the U.S. Census without the question. President Trump contradicted those statements, but on July 11, 2019, he announced he would not pursue addition of the citizenship question further, opting instead to gather citizenship data through other sources via executive order. It is now crucial that the fact that this question has not been added be shared widely to assuage concerns by those who might have been affect. Regardless, as reported by NPR,[i] the U.S. Census officials will be counting both full and partial U.S. Census submissions.

For our communities to be fully served, it is crucial that everyone be counted in the U.S. Census and that they do so without fear of targeting or reprisal. Historically marginalized communities have been chronically undercounted in the U.S. Census, and there is potential for that undercount to get worse, which would have significant detrimental effects not only on those groups, but on communities as a whole—including the arts. Educating community members on the importance of the U.S. Census, and on ways of mitigating some of the main concerns associated with the U.S. Census, is important to everyone.

How are arts and culture agencies and organizations mobilizing to ensure the most comprehensive, but also the most equitable, count possible?

Cultural institutions, artists, and others that implement the arts as a strategy for community vitality across the United States are working to ensure that the upcoming U.S. Census counts everyone in their community.

  • In Marin City, CA, Dominican University is embracing the 2020 Census as a university-wide community engagement theme and will partner with the Marin County Census Committee. They will offer various courses that address issues regarding the Census, including a service-learning community-engaged art class partnering with Performing Stars in Marin City, a predominantly African American community with strong community ties and social activism. Marin City has endured a history of marginalization, and Dominican students will partner and collaborate with Performing Stars’ social justice youth group, and residents in Marin City’s public housing to create public art pieces that promote awareness of and involvement in the 2020 Census.
  • In Minneapolis, MN, the Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy’s Creative CityMaking program will support artists Anna Meyer and Roxanne Anderson, who will collaborate with the Department of Neighborhood and Community Relations to acknowledge the historic racist issues associated with Census data collection, evaluate how racial equity can be centered in Minneapolis’ Census activities, and address chronic undercounting of communities that are also underrepresented in decision-making.
  • In Miami, FL, the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) is participating in efforts to raise awareness of the Census and encourage participation in conjunction with a countywide working group. Two DCA staff members will participate in a “speakers bureau” and will visit neighborhood groups and make presentations about the Census, and the DCA will be involved in hosting community information meetings at cultural facilities and asking grantees to share marketing materials about the Census with their audiences.
  • In Cleveland, OH, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Interim CEO and Executive Director Jill Paulsen is chairing Cuyahoga County’s Complete County Committee for Arts and Culture. The work is ongoing, but will center on using arts and culture-based strategies to help residents understand why the full participation in the Census matters to the whole community, how artists can drive narrative change in addition to creating traditional communications methods, and how local arts agencies and other nexus organizations can be power-sharing and resource-distribution partners with those in communities most likely to be overlooked, least likely to trust, and least likely to participate.

You Can Make a Difference

Do your part. Support cultural organizations and others who are working to ensure that everyone has a safe, easy way of completing the necessary questions on the U.S. Census—and considering disregarding those that feel invasive or unsafe.

Share your strategies. Are you, your organization, or other cultural groups in your community implementing innovative strategies to encourage participation in the U.S. Census? Share them out via Americans for the Arts’ member listservs, social media, and any other outlets you have at hand.

Get informed. If you haven’t already, join the Arts Action Fund to take political action and get e-alerts about this and other pressing issues in 2020. It’s free!

[i] “Skipping the 2020 Census Citizenship Question? You’ll Still Be Counted,” NPR. Accessed July 2, 2019.