Outreach and the 2020 Census: a Matter of Social Justice

By Gavin Baker, Office of Public Policy and Advocacy, Deputy Director, Public Policy and Government Relations

The decennial census determines political representation and allocation of billions of dollars in federal funding, and in 2020, libraries’ role will be more important than ever. The 2020 Census will be the first in its 230-year history that can be taken online. Libraries will need to be prepared and engaged to ensure an inclusive and complete count of our nation’s residents so every community receives the resources they deserve. Starting March 12, households will receive 2020 Census mailings and can respond online, by phone or by mail. ALA has developed a suite of resources, including the comprehensive Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census, to support libraries in promoting a complete count in their communities.

A Fair and Complete Count is a Matter of Social Justice

This iteration faces limitations related to underfunding, litigation, a new digital response option, and an acrimonious political landscape. All of these challenges pose civil rights concerns; communities of color are especially at risk of an undercount. In addition to communicating the importance of participation, libraries are now tasked with dispelling misinformation regarding its use and providing secure reliable digital access for respondents. Achieving a fair and complete count is thus a matter of social justice.

The Census Bureau has developed extensive outreach materials for specific populations to ensure a complete count.  Libraries came together through an IMLS project to develop this toolkit for engaging immigrants.  Recently, BCALA, REFORMA, and the ODLOS Committee on Serving Refugees, Immigrants, and Displaced Persons (SRIDP) joined forces to create a webinar on Library Outreach to Communities of Color

According to a study by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, a public library is located within five miles of 99 percent of hard-to-count census tracts identified with the lowest response rates in 2010. ALA offers tip sheets on reaching out to specific hard-to-count populations, including young kids and college students.

Malden (Mass.) Public Library will hold a multilingual and multicultural census reception on April 1, Census Day, to encourage immigrants to participate in the census. With more than one-third of Malden residents not born in the United States, the library is working with diverse ethnic organizations to promote the census program. 

Collaborate with community organizations

Local communities establish Complete Count Committees to increase awareness and encourage residents to respond to the 2020 Census. ALA just held a webinar and released a tip sheet on Programming, Outreach and Partnerships to help libraries get started in joining local efforts and accessing other local and national resources. To learn more about potential partners and sources of financial support for Census outreach, view ALA’s webinar and tip sheetPreparing My Library for the 2020 Census.  

Hart County (Ky.) Public Library is working with its local newspaper, chamber of commerce, social services and others to communicate the importance of the census for their county, which includes a concentration of Amish households.

Prepare for increased use of library computers and the internet

March and April 2020 will be the peak season for people to come to libraries to complete their census form online. Some libraries plan to expand access to computers and hotspots through outreach activities such as bookmobiles. 

The Flint (Mich.) Public Library plans to park their mobile lab and distribute hotspots at local water distribution stations for residents to complete their census questionnaires online. 

Fight misinformation, disinformation and scams

People will have questions and concerns about the 2020 Census, and libraries can provide accurate information. The Census Bureau has a dedicated web page to address rumors and false information.

The LGBT library at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa., will host a Q&A session in the main library room to fight misinformation and disinformation and encourage LGBT individuals to complete Census questionnaire by increasing awareness about the new household relationship question on the form. 

To ensure communities know they can #CountOnLibraries, invite elected officials to visit and publicize census activities and reach out to local media to share information about events and explain why a complete count matters to your library. 

A master list of ALA resources on census-related topics — from tip sheets to recorded webinars to social media graphics — is available at ala.org/census

You can follow along and contribute to the discussion using the hashtag #CountOnLibraries

ALA would like to hear what programs and activities you have planned to promote the 2020 Census! For more information or to share your census stories, email Gavin Baker (gbaker@alawash.org) and Larra Clark (lclark@ala.org).