News & Updates

The 2020 Census: Why it matters for sexual and reproductive freedom

By Christine Soyong Harley

It’s been a hell of a year already, hasn’t it? Every day, there seems to be another crisis to navigate–for each of us individually and for the elected officials leading our country. And while we’ve all got a lot going on in our lives, there is one thing that we should be sure not to overlook: completing the 2020 Census. 

This might seem boring or wonky, but it’s important. And participation in the U.S. Census has incredible implications for sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice issues. 

What is the Census?

There is a provision in the United States Constitution that requires the U.S. federal government to accurately count the country’s population. Enter: The Census. Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau aims to count every person living in the United States. 

The U.S. Census Bureau sends invitations to each U.S. household to complete the Census form and individuals are allowed to respond by mail, phone, or online. You can see a sample form of the 2020 Census here. For households that do not self-respond via mail, phone, or online, the U.S. Census Bureau will send individuals, called census enumerators, to your home to collect information. So, in these uncertain times of COVID-19 and social distancing, it’s not only easier to self-report. It’s also safer.

Why is the Census so important?

The census has everything to do with how our congressional representation works. For starters, it’s how we figure out how many people are actually in each district and state in our country. We apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on the population figures from the census. In 2020, it is estimated that a handful of seats in the House of Representatives may shift based on the Census count. This means that some states may lose a representative or two (because of a lower count), while other states may gain one (because of a higher count). So, it’s critical that everyone complete the census so that their state doesn’t lose congressional representation because of an undercount.

The decennial census count is also used for redistricting congressional, state, and local election voting districts. The basic idea behind redistricting is to ensure that voting districts reflect the most up-to-date population count to keep districts as equal as possible in terms of representation. Unfortunately, redistricting is sometimes manipulated as a political strategy to draw congressional districts that favor one political party over the other. An accurate census count makes it more difficult to suppress the voting power of underrepresented populations, such as communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant populations.

Census data also determines how 1.5 trillion dollars in federal funds are spent on a variety of programs each year. This includes funding for programs like Medicaid, housing assistance programs, and adolescent sexual health programs. These programs rely on accurate census data to direct federal funds to high-priority target populations. If these same target populations are undercounted, it means fewer resources are going to where they are most needed.

Finally, census data has huge impacts for our democracy overall. Some population groups, including communities of color, low-income households, children, and immigrants, among others, with historically low census self-response rates have been deemed “hard to count” groups. When the census undercounts these communities, more “well-to-do” and “easier-to-count” communities will get more than their fair share of representation in Congress. This inherently weakens our democracy by making it not-so-representative of all of its people.It also means that these “hard-to-count” populations get fewer federal resources allocated to support their health care, education, housing, and other critical community needs.

How does this impact sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice?

So, you’re a person who cares about sex ed, or abortion rights, or LGBTQ equality. And you’re probably wondering, “Do I really have to care about the census, too? Don’t I have enough to deal with?” Not to add to your list of concerns, but, yes. 

The federal government makes allocations for discretionary program funding to states and local governments based on census data. Adolescent sexual health programs such as the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) are discretionary programs that use census data to reach high priority communities. These high priority communities often overlap with the populations considered “hard-to-count.” We also know that these communities already face incredible barriers to receiving the sexual and reproductive health care, information, and education they need. So, when the census fails to capture an accurate count of these groups of people, these disparities only worsen. 

For example, SIECUS’ state profiles report highlighted the ways that marginalized populations, such as youth of color, LGBTQ youth, youth living with disabilities, systems-involved youth are often left out of opportunities to receive comprehensive sex education. As is often the case, the schools and programs that serve these populations often lack the resources needed to provide comprehensive instruction. By undercounting these marginalized groups, we are denying them the representation, resources, and political power they deserve to be able to achieve their own sexual and reproductive freedom.

What can we do to make sure #WeCount today?

Get Counted! Participate in the 2020 Census. Visit today. Click the big, green “respond” button. And, once you’re done, make some noise for yourself. Share that you participated across your social media channels. Bring it up in your daily conversations and encourage your friends, family, and loved ones to participate, too.

And there’s even more you can do. See below for suggestions on how to further involve yourself in Census activities:

Participating in our democracy is one of the best mechanisms for protecting the rights we have – and demanding the rights we deserve. And completing the Census allows us to do just that. Everything from abortion access to comprehensive sex education to immigrant justice is dependent upon being seen by our government. So let’s make them see us by filling out the 2020 Census today.


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