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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

“The government already knows everything about me!”

“I go to them for my driver’s license and passport.”

“They already know what the population is in each town. That’s why when driving from city to city, the population is already presented on the road sign when you enter the city limits.”

So, if the government already knows everything, “Why should anyone care about the census?”

Why indeed!

Leading community leaders tackled the half-truths, misconceptions, and confusion behind why the census matters little to some people, on an episode of Radio Mirchi with RJ Sudha that aired Thursday, May 29.

Radio Jockey Sudha was joined by Vandana Kumar, co-founder, and publisher of India Currents, and Aarti Kohli and Julia Marks of Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, to examine why some people disregard the census and what that means to the future of minority communities.

April 1 (Census Day) came and went and with that, many people have forgotten about the census. Though California leads the national self-response rate at over 60%, about 40% of households have yet to respond.

“We’re a little way behind compared to self-response rates from 2010,” said Julia Marks, pointing out that an inaccurate census count could seriously impact California.

But what exactly does that mean for California and its diverse communities?

RJ Sudha had questions from listeners for her guests to answer. In fact, she herself was surprised to discover in the discussion, that “it’s the law to participate in the process!”

India Currents publisher Vandana Kumar on Radio Mirchi

Vandana Kumar, who’s had her finger on the pulse of the  Asian Indian community for over 32 years, had a perspective on why some people share the viewpoint of an Uber driver who once told her, “The government already knows everything about me. I’m not going to do this – it’s a waste of time.”

“It’s not that people don’t know about the census,”  she said, “they just don’t see its relevance. How do you convince somebody like that?”

Conviction needs to be rooted in facts and it was clear from the questions that people were apprehensive about the census because they were misinformed about its intention and impact.

Both Aarti Kohli and Julia Marks set about reassuring listeners by clearing up doubts and confusion about the decennial in what Marks (a self-confessed census nerd) called ‘shareable soundbites’.

Building Community Power

The starting point should be “How do we use the census to build power in our community?” said Aarti Kohli, the Executive Director of Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and an experienced non-profit lawyer who works extensively with immigrants and undocumented. To her ,“The first basic step of building power is showing up and saying that I am here.”

Describing the census as “a fascinating and important structure in that is self-reporting,” Kohli reminded listeners that the census “starts with you. You are empowered to start with yourself.”

Out in the grocery stores and streets of Santa Clara for example, it is evident that the Asian Indian community is growing. Asian Indians communities have increased by 65000 people just in the last few years by some estimates.

But though “we might be visible to each other on the street,” said Kohli, “we won’t be recognized by the government and others until we fill out the census and that data is collected.”

“It’s worth remembering that populations are constantly changing in the Bay area,” added Marks, “it’s important to get it accurate.”

Get Your Fair Share
Both Kohli and Marks reiterated that the most important outcome of the constitutionally mandated census and the data it collects is to ensure that federal funds reach local communities in the right amounts.

“Responding to the census is a chance to make sure you’re getting your fair share for your family and your community,” explained Marks, referring to funding distribution for public schools that children attend, and government benefits, senior centers, medical and food programs that people use. “The message that resonates the most is that it helps you get your fair share!”

The other big piece is fair political representation. Data collected on the census determines how many congressional seats each state gets and how district boundaries are drawn. In order to have a representative government, said Marks, we need to know how many people live where so that the electoral system that adequately reflects those communities.

Key Points to Remember

  • It’s a short household-based survey that asks for basic demographic information
  • The nine questions cover gender, race and ethnicity, age, and date of birth
  • Start with the ID number that came by mail, but without it, you can still go online and or call the phone line to fill out the census
  • Include everyone in the household –roommates, cousins living with you, children, elderly relatives
  • For separate households under one roof, (e.g. rented out in-law units) each unit should submit separately or coordinate to complete one form together
  • In apartment building households getting separate mailing should file separately
  • If the mail does not deliver to multiple units then coordinate with your neighbors to complete forms.
  • College-age children coming home should be counted in the household but be prepared for a follow-up query from the Census to make sure your children have not been counted twice
  • Data asking citizenship and income details are not on the census form
  • Census responses are confidential and protected by law
  • The record states a penalty may be exacted from non-respondents but it’s unlikely to be enforced

Why Under Fives and Seniors are Missed Out in the Count

The undercount hurts the most vulnerable in the community. Children under 5 may be left out because they don’t count as adults or, in a joint custody situation between two households, one parent may assume the other parent has accounted for young children on the form

A key fact according to Marks, is that “More people are missed out in the census count because they were left off the form by the household they live in, than by a total failure of the households to respond at all.”

Kumar raised an issue culturally specific to the Indian community. How do you count green card holder parents who live between India and the US, or seniors who split their time between children in different states?

Marks confirmed that six months is the magic number for figuring out whether and where someone should be counted. “Having said that, if parents move frequently then the default date to use is wherever you were on April 1st.”

Reasons Why it’s a Challenge

Living in the new normal makes life challenging for people just trying to get through the day, all the guests agreed. At a time when people are grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown and its economic impact, and civic unrest exploding across the nation, “ filling out a government form is not a priority.”

People with different immigration statuses – expired visas or work permits, and the undocumented, are worried about getting compromised or violating landlord rule, don’t get counted, said Kohli, who works as an advocate for these minorities. “They are part of our communities and have to be counted.”

But it is important to keep the message out there that the census is still ongoing, and people can and should still respond. At a time like this cautions Marks, “we need all these services really now more than ever – healthcare, housing support, food support, education – responding to the census will make sure that’s adequately funded for the next ten years.”

The Census Bureau is doing its part to reach out to underserved and undercounted communities by increasing its language options and expanding its outreach through local leaders and trusted sources.

“The Census Bureau has reached out in so many different ways” concluded Kumar who was tapped as a trusted messenger in recent Census initiatives to get the count-out in her community.
”How much more can they do to say we matter?”

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...