Yesterday, the US Supreme Court decided the contentious case about whether the Commerce Secretary can add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. To help our readers decipher the 92-pages of competing opinions with fractured voting among the nine Justices and translate what it means for nonprofits, NPQ asked for insights from Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, a former state Solicitor General who has argued and won cases in the US Supreme Court and who, with his colleagues, wrote an amicus brief in this case for the nonprofit community.
Many cases that wind their way to the US Supreme Court are so boring they can make watching paint dry seem exciting. Not this case. From the beginning, the question of why and how the aggressive attempt was made to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census has been highly contentious, getting to the very core of our national identity. But, setting aside motive, the consequences of adding the question would have been enormous.
In some ways, the plot reads like a novel, belying the importance and centrality of the question being decided. The case has involved enormous stakes as regular people had the audacity to challenge powerful partisan interests, generated heart-pounding suspense as lawyers swiftly maneuvered cases in multiple courts for the greatest leverage, provided intrigue via allegations of deviousness (something the Court’s decision reinforced as it heaped scorn on “contrived” actions), and even included the dramatic accidental discovery of new evidence after oral arguments—materials innocently uncovered by the estranged daughter of someone who died (something the Court did not try to block from being explored further—so stay tuned for more).
Nonprofits had a lot to lose, depending on how the Supreme Court ruled in this case. More fundamentally, Americans have a lot to lose. At stake, of course, is literally who is counted and who counts—or is perceived as not counting in America. With the current political environment in which heated and too-often toxic rhetoric is growing, the full recognition of this country’s communities of color has never been so critical.
The placing of a citizenship question on the census, according to US Census Bureau research, was anticipated to potentially lead to an undercount of 6.5 million people.
But, for multiple reasons, the issue of the citizenship question still has not been fully resolved. This article identifies how an incomplete census count threatens the work of almost every nonprofit in the country, analyzes (very briefly) the Court’s decision, and searches for a glimpse of the future before suggesting steps each nonprofit can take with the 2020 census to protect its mission.
Why Nonprofits Have a Stake in the Census Count
While mandated by the Constitution to apportion political representation, the results of the decennial count of every person in America affect the lives of us all—including nonprofits—every day. Census data are used to allocate not only political power between the states, but also about $900 billion in federal funds annually. Many of those dollars flow to the work of nonprofits through grants and contracts with federal, state, and local governments. Plus, the data provide information that for-profit businesses, governmental entities, and nonprofits will use when making business and planning decisions over the next decade. Anything less than a fair, accurate, and complete count shortchanges communities and produces flawed data upon which billions in investments are based. In short, everyone loses when everyone is not counted.
We wrote our amicus brief to make abundantly clear what the citizenship question could mean to frontline nonprofits. The evidence at all three federal court trials, including sworn testimony from Census Bureau experts, showed that including the citizenship question on the census would lead to undercounts and flawed results. We wanted the Court to look beyond the raw partisanship that fills DC and see the practical truth that an unfair, inaccurate, and incomplete count by the federal government poses significant threats to the work of nonprofits in local communities across the country. Those threats include these three points we stressed in our brief:
Impact on Dollars and Sustainability
When individuals aren’t counted, they aren’t erased. They still exist, as do their human needs. The uncounted child still attends school, the uncounted veteran still needs a home, the uncounted farmer still uses roads and bridges, and the uncounted widow still needs her doctor. For every person the census fails to count, fewer dollars are allocated to the community where the person lives. States lose anywhere between $533 and $2,309 annually per person who isn’t counted. When resources are withheld due to undercounts, it unfairly shifts the government’s financial responsibilities for helping the public onto the backs of charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations
Impact on Data and Effectiveness
Undercounts do not simply leave numbers out; they distort the true numbers, essentially corrupting the data that are reported. Using corrupted data would erode the eff