Making Our Challenges Count: Why Census Representation Matters for Women of Color

When Stacey Abrams took the stage at a reproductive justice gathering last month, she was all about political power. The poignancy of Georgia’s former gubernatorial candidate’s reported remarks—outlining the stakes for the 2020 Census and reminding audiences how quickly power can be stolen from Black leaders and communities—is significant as we prepare to get out the count.

One phrase, in particular, leaped off the page: “Black children get undercounted,” Abrams explained, “because Black mamas don’t always want to participate, because they don’t want to get anybody in trouble.” 

(USDAgov / Creative Commons)

I’ve heard time and again the central role women play to ensure their families are adequately represented in the United States’ decennial census. As a Black woman who migrated from Jamaica with my family to the United States as a child, I understand why Black families would feel suspect of government processes—suspicion has too often characterized the government’s treatment of Black and immigrant families. 

As a member of Maryland’s state assembly, I take pride in the moral responsibility and unique opportunity elected officials hold to get this census right. But census participation doesn’t just shape political power. Population counts also decide which families and children can count on equal access to federally funded programs that support nutrition, education, housing and healthcare. 

Achieving a fair and accurate census count will decide if $800 billion in annual federal assistance is equitably distributed. Whether or not small children and families are penned into a census form can determine access to Special Education Grants, the Head Start program and Child Care and Development Fund; SNAP and the National School Lunch Program; and Medicaid, one of the largest and most critical federal-state programs.

Across the board, federal funding provides a critical safety net to catch families when they fall and fulfill our duty to meet the basic needs of every resident in the United States. These programs prevent families from choosing between paying rent or buying groceries, help children focus on nurturing their imaginations and provide critical care for seniors and people living with disabilities.

Unfortunately, many population groups who need these supports are historically undercounted in the census.

In 2015, African-American children comprised 41 percent of those served under the Child Care and Development Fund, and 26 percent of African-Americans received SNAP benefits. The expansion of Medicaid played a critical role in improving birth outcomes and reducing maternal and infant mortality rates that disproportionately devastate Black families

But more than 800,000 African-Americans were undercounted in the 2010 Census—more than the entire population of Baltimore or Washington, D.C. An estimated one in three African-Americans live in hard-to-count census tracts, and Pew Research Center concluded in October that Black respondents were twice as likely as white, non-Hispanic peers to report they are unlikely to participate in the 2020 Census. 

California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas are at risk for a Black undercount in 2020. Having grown up in humble circumstances, I understand the importance of community services and the advocacy required to ensure local elected leaders remain accountable to all of their constituents—which is why I introduced legislation in 2019 to create a census committee and fought for Maryland to invest in census outreach

Across the nation, hundreds of local elected leaders have similarly committed to championing the census, working with community organizations to reach constituents and instill trust, not fear. The Trump Administration’s failed legal battle for a citizenship question on the Census and their recently-reported attempts to retrieve citizenship information out the backdoor of state motor vehicle databases hasn’t helped build that trust, and make it all the more important for states to invest handsomely in outreach and public information campaigns. 

Many communities are facing a number of challenges, many of which are especially burdensome when weighed down by the generational inequalities of systemic racism. We can ease the challenges women of color face over the next decade if we do our part now to count everyone in the 2020 Census.


Jheanelle K. Wilkins represents District 20 in Maryland’s House of Delegates. She has successfully passed legislation to curb racial profiling, address maternal health, advance trauma-informed education and promote the economic security of Maryland families. Follow her @JheanelleW.