Local leaders are already pushing for Baton Rouge residents to participate in the 2020 census, especially residents of the parish's largely black neighborhoods that have historically been undercounted and underserved. 

The national census is conducted every 10 years, as required by the U.S. Constitution. Its results determine congressional representation as well as federal funding for major social programs including food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid and some educational resources. 

Poor and minority communities are often hard to count because of transient living situations and a general mistrust of federal authorities. Advocates argue that achieving an accurate representation of those groups would produce a more equitable distribution of political and financial resources across America.

That argument took center stage at a meeting Wednesday on Southern University's campus. Civil rights advocates, local leaders and members of the U.S. Census Bureau convened in Baton Rouge to raise awareness about the importance of getting residents to respond in the upcoming count. 

"From 1790 — the first census that was taken — to after the Civil War, we weren't even counted as a whole person. We were counted as three-fifths of a person, y'all," said Jeri Green, of the nonprofit National Urban League. "That thinking is still around today. There are people who don't want you to be counted. … So this is not a frivolous conversation. It's necessary."

Meeting organizers said federal authorities have identified Baton Rouge as a "hard to count" area based on past response rates. About 70 percent of parish residents participated in the 2010 census, down from 72 percent in 2000. The average response rate nationally has hovered around 75 percent, according to federal data

Louisiana as a whole also has seen relatively low response rates, with some parishes dipping below 50 percent during the last count.

The state lost a congressional seat — its second in 20 years — after the 2010 census because results indicated Louisiana's share of the U.S. population had shrunk. Louisiana held eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for several decades, until that number dropped to seven in 1990 and then to six in 2010. 

Advocates pointed to several reasons that marginalized communities get overlooked in census counts. Those include multiple families living in one house, children splitting their time with different relatives or general anxiety about how census data will be used, especially among people involved in the criminal justice system. 

Advocates also noted the inevitable outcome: The most vulnerable people in America end up receiving fewer federal resources. 

"Our relationship with the federal government has not always been good," Green said of the black population. "We have a collective memory of not being treated fairly.

"But history has shown that we are resilient and do not give up. This is a matter of us educating each other, reassuring people that their information is safe. It's about representation." 

The 2020 census has already received more attention than most, in part because it's the first with an online response option. 

Most residents can expect to receive notice in the mail a year from now, in March 2020, informing them about the census and providing the internet link where they can submit their information.

They'll receive a paper questionnaire the following month if they haven't responded online. The next step is for a census worker to show up at their doors, which would be sometime that August. 

The upcoming count also has been the subject of recent headlines because of the ongoing legal battle over the Trump administration's proposed "citizenship question." Opponents argue the question will lead to even more fear among minorities even though the results remain confidential and can't be turned over to immigration authorities. 

Projections estimate that the United States will become minority white in 2045, which advocates point to as another reason people will pay close attention to the results of the upcoming census. 

State Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat who helped organize Wednesday's meeting, said he's doing as much as possible to dispel the myths about the census and get people to realize the benefits of participating. 

"Especially with the current political climate and the rhetoric coming down from Washington, certain communities feel like they aren't wanted, that there's an effort to remove them and their families. That creates more distrust," he said.

"But this community is so reliant on federal funds. It's important for people to know that if we're not counted, we lose resources."

Advocates also noted that getting an accurate count of children and babies is especially important because funding for youth programs is allocated based on those numbers.

"The 2020 census is becoming really one of the most important civil rights issues of our time," East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said. "It is a key component of our democracy and certainly a large portion of its success in our city will hinge on the involvement of Baton Rouge's African-American community.

"Remember that the census only happens every 10 years and there are no do overs. We have to get it right."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.