Before he moved on to more controversial topics at the Baton Rouge Press Club some weeks ago, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy offered something of a civic pitch: He urged all Louisianans to answer their U.S. Census questionnaire.
“It’s not the sexiest of topics but it is enormously, enormously important,” Kennedy said. Whether or not everybody in the state is counted carries “huge political ramifications, huge social ramifications and huge economic ramifications.”
He’s right, and he’s just one of many who’ll be pushing that message 2020.
Individual Louisianans will start hearing from census officials in March, leading up to the official census day of April 1. This time, people can fill out their forms online, by mail or in person. Before then, officials and activists are going to be working to get the word out, particularly to groups that are historically difficult to count. They include the elderly, people of color, members of the military, rural residents, lower-income people, the homeless, and even young kids whose parents don’t always know to include them.
In mid-December, Gov. John Bel Edwards created a “complete count” committee and appointed a long list of advocates and officials, including New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome. He said the state will hold a kick-off early in the new year.
The census is used to determine not only how many Congressional districts each state has — Louisiana isn’t expected to gain or lose any — but where the Legislature draws the lines. Political districting at all levels also stems from census data. In general, when communities are undercounted, they can wind up forfeiting some of their political clout.
But much of what the census determines transcends politics. According to research from George Washington University, nearly $14.5 billion in federal spending came to Louisiana in Fiscal Year 2016 via major programs that rely upon census data. The largest is Medicaid, following by student loans and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Census results also dictate how much Washington spends locally on highways, Section 8, Head Start, and school lunch and breakfast programs. The total federal take from programs that use the census to allocate money amounts to more than $3,100 per Louisianan counted.
Census data also influences governmental decisions like where to locate facilities, and private sector decisions such as where businesses locate.
One challenge advocates face is trust. Kennedy quoted surveys showing a growing number of people reluctant to participate. Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and a member of the governor’s committee, agrees it’s a problem. In its outreach, she said her organization will try to “relate it back to the fact that we’re one of the poorest states in the country. These programs matter.”
They do, in every community in the state. That alone should be good enough reason for every Louisianan to take a few minutes in the new year to stand up and be counted.