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Philanthropy Turns to the Supreme Court to Ensure a Fair and Accurate Census Count

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Census 2020: Why Philanthropy CountsIt is essential that the upcoming 2020 Census accurately counts all members of the U.S. population, citizens and non-citizens alike. An unfair and inaccurate 2020 Census would generate extensive and negative consequences for the philanthropy sector, the grantees and other partners that we work with, and, most importantly, the communities that we serve.

Recognizing these risks, this week 30 foundations and philanthropy serving organizations (PSOs), including United Philanthropy Forum and eight Forum members, signed an amicus curiae brief that was submitted to the Supreme Court. The effort was led by the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation and its Funders Census Initiative, Philanthropy California, and the Bauman Foundation. The brief was filed by the law firm Friedman Kaplan as part of its commitment to pro bono work. By outlining the ways in which philanthropy relies on and utilizes census data, the “friends of the court” brief makes the case to uphold the lower courts’ rulings to set aside the untested citizenship question from the 2020 Census.

We already know that the census process has historically undercounted children, immigrants, low-income individuals, people of color, and people living in rural areas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s own analysis, the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census greatly amplifies the risk of a sizable undercount, especially of these populations. In particular, with the inclusion of a citizenship question, households containing at least one noncitizen (including those lawfully residing in the country such as permanent residents, visa holders, or refugees) are less likely to participate in the census count. Even prior to the government’s plan to add a citizenship question, Census Bureau focus groups documented an “unprecedented” level of concern about confidentiality in completing the census, particularly in immigrant communities. The addition of a citizenship question will exacerbate these already historic levels of mistrust. An undercount affects not just noncitizen residents, but all members of the households that remain outside of this decennial process.  

The ramifications of the census are vast. Census data directly affect allocations of resources for more than 300 federal programs. The amicus curiae brief explains that the underserved populations that rely the most on these federal resources are often the same ones most likely to be undercounted, leading to a decline in the percentage of federal funding in the communities that need it the most. While philanthropy will continue to support vital programs affecting health, education, transportation, and housing, foundation dollars can never make up for declining government assistance.

The amicus curiae brief outlines a number of ways that foundations and PSOs rely on accurate census data in their efforts to support thriving communities and empowered citizens. Philanthropy uses census data to understand the makeup of communities, identify disparities, and clarify their distinctive needs and attributes. The information gained from census data critically influences the decisions that philanthropy makes to deliver the most effective programs and targeted investments. From an evaluation and learning perspective, philanthropy relies on census data to identify outcomes and measure progress.

While foundations and PSOs increasingly devote time and resources to educating congressional leaders about how policy decisions affect the philanthropy sector, it is relatively uncommon for philanthropy to do the same for the judicial branch. Philanthropy made the unusual decision to come before the court on this issue given the large impact the court’s decision will have on the sector’s work and the communities that the sector supports. Through the amicus curiae brief, foundations and PSOs offered their perspectives to the court on how the citizenship question will negatively influence their ability to carry out their missions. The brief highlights issues not covered by other parties or amicus briefs, underscoring philanthropy’s unique ability to use its voice to educate and influence public policy.

The census is a cornerstone of American democracy. Yet undercounting certain groups undermines this entire process by muffling their voices, limiting their representation, and stifling their ability to thrive. By submitting the amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, philanthropy is embracing its influence in the public policy sphere and shining a light on the many negative ramifications of this misguided policy.

Matt Hennessy
Senior Manager of Public Policy, United Philanthropy Forum

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