Keshia Morris speaking at a rally about the census

Ep. 116 – The Census: All the Facts & Why It is Important

What is the Census?

Keshia Morris the census and mass incarceration Project Manager for Common Cause, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.
In this episode of the podcast we discuss the facts about the census and why it is important that our community participates in the census.
Keshia specifically answers these questions:
  • What is the census?
  • What does the census impact?
  • What are the impacts of under counting?
  • What is the citizenship question about?
  • Why should we all participate in the census?


Mentioned in the episode

  • Marlon Hill and the importance of the Census in our Community.

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Kerry-Ann:  Hey everyone welcome to another episode of Carry On Friends, The Caribbean American Podcast. I’m excited you’re listening to this very special and very important episode. With me today my guest is Keshia Morris of Common Cause. Keshia welcome to the podcast. How are you today?

Keshia Morris:Awesome. Thank you, Kerry for having me on.

Kerry-Ann:  All right. So Keshia, tell the community a little bit about who you are Caribbean country you represent and some of the work that you’re doing with Common Cause

Keshia Morris:For sure. So my name is Keshia Morris. I am a Jamaican, Guyanese Canadian immigrant. My father’s Jamaican from St. Mary and my mom is Guyanese from Georgetown. I grew up between Canada and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then moved to the DC area about the last five years or so. But as of right now, I am a non-citizen of the United States, but I am trying to work to make America better. 

Kerry-Ann:  Awesome. So we have something in common. So people do watch the noise in the background. She says she’s in DC and if you are in the DC, New York area, no office is quiet enough to stop any sirens or anything, it is not a normal thing. We do have something in common because my maternal grandfather’s from St. Mary’s. So we’ll talk off the air, about St. Marry and all of that. So talk to me a little bit about Common Cause, what is Common Cause the work you’re doing for Common Cause etc.?

Keshia Morris: Yes, so I am the census and mass incarceration Project Manager for Common Cause. So that means that on the census side, I help lead and guide our work around the census. So we have about 19 states that are engaged and making sure that the 2020 census is fair and accurate. And then on the mass incarceration side I do similar work, but on a different, totally different issue. 

Kerry-Ann:  All right, got it. Got it. So for this episode, we’re going to focus on the census. And it’s let’s start off with what exactly is the census? Because, you know, it’s this word that’s being thrown out? We have a general understanding what’s what it does. But you know, I also feel like the census in a modern day feels kind of off, because it seems like an old school way of doing things when we’re so digitize and technology, such a big part. But really, what is the census? And why is the census important? 

Keshia Morris:Yeah, for sure. So, um, the Constitution actually requires that every 10 years, our government conduct a census. So that means that they have to do a head count of everyone that lives in the United States. And that’s everyone, regardless of citizenship status, or even how old you are babies still need to get counted, but they were born in 2020. When you have your census form, they should be counted on your census on your census form. So yes, so the Constitution requires the census, to a portion seats and Congress. And since then, we have also used the census to count how many people should be in local state district. It also helps determine about $800 billion of federal funding. So that helps states you know, determine, you know, how much money is needed for your local fire station, or you know, where to put the next police station, or you know, where road work will need to be done, just because the population is rising in a certain area. So it has wide ranges of impacts of the census that we do every 10 years. 

Kerry-Ann:  Awesome. So all right, so let me just kind of summarize that the census is in the Constitution, the Constitution, the people Founding Fathers said, We need everybody to be counted, whether you’re a citizen or not, you need to be counted. And one of the most important reasons why it’s in the constitution and a head count is important is in the US government; we have the Senate and the House of Representatives. And that you know without going into the history lesson that was a compromise for between the bigger states and the smaller states. So for the senate, we always have two senators, but the House of Representatives, that number goes up and down depending on the population in a particular state, or whatever the situation is. So the House of Representatives, the numbers should reflect the people that live within a certain area that they are representing and whether, you know, let’s say the population rose in New York, New York may need more House of represent more congressmen in the House of Representatives. So that’s the basic, but on a more important level, you’re saying that because of the headcount, there’s 8 billion that’s “B” worth a federal funding, and God knows 

Keshia Morris:800 billion 

Kerry-Ann:  800 billion! That’s a whole heap of money, and we already said it, pothole because you have to swerve, out of pothole like it’s no joke. Fire stations, because again, with population increase, you can’t have the one little fire station a try service an entire community where the population is growing. And I’m sure it also affects schools and funding for schools and class sizes and all of those things, right? 

Keshia Morris:Absolutely. Absolutely. Anything that you can think of, really, that has to do with populations and where people live is dependent on census data.

Kerry-Ann:  All right. All right. So now we know what the census is and the purpose of the census. You know, back in the day, it was a form that you fill out, how are we going about doing the census and the last time the census happened was 2010. And to be honest, I don’t remember it, at all, I vaguely remember somebody coming to my door, but I don’t remember. So between 2010 and now, what is going to change in the way we do the census?

Keshia Morris:Absolutely. So there are a few changes to the census from 2010 to now, the next census happening in 2020. One of the major changes is that this census will be primarily conducted online. So the Census Bureau has said that they are hopeful that about 80% of the population will fill out their census form online. So that means that, you know, they really didn’t have the budget to send out paper forms to every single household like they did in prior years. And so what will happen is that about 80% of households will receive a postcard with a unique ID for them to fill out the census online. However, you don’t have to use that unique ID, you can fill out the census form without it, but is preferred, but you use that unique ID to fill out the census. So but if you choose that, you know, you don’t want to fill out the census online. After a few weeks, have you not filling it out online, they will send a paper form to your households. And you can fill it out traditionally the traditional way through paper, or you could also even fill it out, or talk to someone over the phone and give him or her your responses as well.

Kerry-Ann:  All right, so let’s talk about the paper form like so basic question is a Census anonymous.

Keshia Morris:Yes, absolutely. The census is anonymous; your name is not going on the form it is connected to your home address. But your name does not go on the census form. 

Kerry-Ann: All right so Keshia anonymous, in quotes, right? But it’s connected to my address, right, so you can’t look up the address and see who’s living at the address? That’s, that’s kind of a concern people might have.

Keshia Morris:Right, so, well, one, the Census Bureau is required to keep your household responses confidential. And they’re required to do that for 72 years after you fill out the form. So you are protected that way.

Kerry-Ann:  Okay. And then the unique ID we can fill it out with our without it? Right. But it’s kind of what’s the ben… so why do they need the unique ID to say that the person who lives at this address completed it?

Keshia Morris:Right.

Kerry-Ann:  So if I said, you know, Mi go fill out the census, but mi nuh want Babylon know which part me live. So mi go tek off the unique ID [Translation: I’m going to fill out the census but I don’t want the authorities to know where I live so I’m not going to use the unique ID]

Kerry-Ann: I’m just saying something right? Will they come back and say, they will get my response. But will they come back and see the person who lives at this house? Did not fill out the census because we have no records of it? And even though I did it, I chose not to use the unique ID. Is that’s what going to happen?

Keshia Morris:No, it’s more a way for, a quicker way for the Census Bureau to realize who has filled out the form and who has not as far as households go. But yeah, if you do not use the unique ID, it’s just a longer process for the Census Bureau to, to validate.

Kerry-Ann:  So what about if people choose not to fill out the census? Like they’re like, they don’t trust it, you know, you know, I don’t want anybody come for me like, what is that? Because we’re not getting into the politics of the census. But that is a legitimate concern. What if I don’t want to fill it out?

Keshia Morris:Yeah, that’s a real, that’s a real concern that a lot of folks have. Really, as I said, prior, your, census forms are confidential. What is shared? And what I think people are maybe a little bit worried about is the fact that it’s aggregate data that is that is being sharing and is posted on the Census Bureau website for researchers and so on. So, you know, your individual responses aren’t shared but you know, the summary of responses for folks in your neighborhood is shared and is public and is public data. Okay.

Kerry-Ann:  Okay. And so what about, so can someone not fill out the census form?

Keshia Morris:So it is your choice to fill it to fill out this form or not. However it is, is required by law and is required by the Constitution that everyone fill out their census form, and fill it out in its entirety? Well, how I say it’s your choice is because, you know, the Census Bureau is not a prosecuting agency, they historically have not prosecuted folks for not filling out their census form. But as I said, it is required by law it is required by the Constitution that everyone fill out their census form. And really, it only serves to benefit the community. As we talked about, before, you know, all of the all of the items that are super important to our daily living, you know, the roads, we drive on the fire stations in our communities, where hospitals go, all of those items are super important to you are directly connected to you filling out your census form.

Kerry-Ann:  All right. So in essence, what you’re saying to me is the census is like, your vote, right, you have to participate. Because if you don’t participate, you can feel the effects of less funding, you know, my kids are in school, and the class sizes are great, but you know, without funding, you find that without the proper funding classes are too large, or, you know, after school, all these different things that we take for granted, they’re in direct correlation to the census, because that’s the only data that the federal government has, or the state and local governments could use to advocate for funding. So you’re saying that, it’s, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re doing this. So I would be remiss not to talk about this. But you know, there in our Caribbean community, there are a lot of undocumented people, and, you know, the fear around completing this form, and, you know, police or ICE or whoever are able to locate them by filling out this form. So what would you have to say around undocumented immigrants? You know, so this, and just to be clear, you’re saying the census is and the Constitution says the census is for everyone. So whether you are a naturalized citizen, born here, whether you have our green card, or you are overstayed a visa, aka undocumented, that’s what we mean by undocumented, everybody has to do this census, correct? Yeah. So for those who are, you know, maybe green card holders, and, you know, undocumented, what can you say to them regarding their concerns about being harassed by ice or any federal agency considering the current climate around filling out the census?

Keshia Morris:Absolutely. So, I think what you are getting to, is a, you know, what has been circling around this 2020 census. And that is, I’m not sure if folks have been following along, but with the news cycle around the census, but you know, there is a pending question on the census for 2020, asking about citizenship status. As I said, you know, whether or not that question is on the census it is your choice, and you have a choice of your household? And what’s best for you and your family, whether or not you want to fill out that particular question. But what I can say is that, you know your, your responses are protected by law. And it would require a breaking of the law, for your responses to be used against you in any sort of way, even if it was, you know, even if it’s aggregate data that was used, like say, you know, a ICE or, a particular ICE agent went on a census bureau website and said, you know, oh, well, this community has a large percentage of Caribbean Americans in it, I’m going to target this community, that is actually against the law. They cannot use census data and any sort of way to harm any person individually.

Kerry-Ann:  All right. Got you. So all right, let’s talk about the citizenship question. Is it? So are any other questions on the census optional, you know, like, when you fill out a survey, you can go I don’t want to fill that out. Are questions optional? You know, so if that census question comes up, can I just choose not to answer that question if it ends up on the census?

Keshia Morris:Yeah. I mean, as I said, all responses, you have to, it is required by law that that every individual, who lives of United States, fill out this census and fill it out in its entirety. So we know just by talking, like advocates talking with the Census Bureau, that, you know, if that question, or any question really say, right now, there’s 10 questions on the census for 2020. If people fill out nine out of 10 questions, we know from talking to the Census Bureau that, you know, you will be counted, there will not be a enumerator or a census taker, come to your door to ask you that last question. But say, you know, you don’t fill out seven of the 10 questions, then most likely, you will, you know, see someone knocking on your door, you know, asking you to complete the last three questions. So, I mean, it’s up to you, and what’s best for your household on how you respond to that. 

Kerry-Ann: Hmm. Sothe question itself, for right now, it’s 10 questions on the survey on the census, which is not a lot of questions, right. So the citizenship question, is it just Are you a citizen? Yes, no. And then if it is, let’s just say you say no. Is it asking you a follow up question as to where were you born like, is it? How is the question currently being proposed?

Keshia Morris:Yes. So it asks the question asked, are you a citizen? And then you have five options for response? The first option is, yes, I’m a citizen. Born in the United States. The second option is, yes, I’m a citizen born in, you know, one of the territories, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. The next is, yes, I’m a naturalized citizen, and it asks you for the date of naturalization. And then fourth is, yes, I’m a citizen, born, like, say, if you’re a military member, and you’re born, you know, outside the United States, but on a military base, or something. Yeah. Um, that’s another option. And then the last option, the fifth option is no, I’m not a citizen. So

Kerry-Ann:  well, in that sense, well, in that sense, no could mean anything, because no, it could be. It doesn’t allude to you being illegal. It could be that you’re on a student visa, because I went to school with a lot of students who come to the US. It could be you’re from Canada, and you just live and work in the US. Or it could mean anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an illegal immigrant. It’s just that you are here on some other type of visa. Right. Right. Okay, cool. So the other thing I wanted to ask you regarding the census is, I remember in 2010, there was a big deal around writing in your country of heritage. Is that something that is still the case with the 2020? And what’s the question? And how does that work?

Keshia Morris:Yes, so um, that is a question on the form. The question is exactly, just pulling it up here. And actually, you might have it on the test form 

Kerry-Ann:  Is it number nine?

Keshia Morris:Number nine? Yeah, I said, I believe it’s number nine. So what is person, one’s race or person? What is this person’s race? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And then it gives a option, like a blank line for people to fill it in

Kerry-Ann:  Right? So what’s the person’s race you put in checkbox? Beside whether those are the options are white, black, or African American, or American Indian or Native Alaskan. And then it says some other race. So let’s say I choose black. And right below that it’s a print for example, African American Jamaican, and those are the examples people, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc. So you could do black and then below that you type in the country. But what happens in your instance, where you have Jamaican father, and a Guyanese mother? What about people who have two countries that they’re representing? Because of their parentage? 

Keshia Morris:yeah, I believe that. I mean the line is big enough. A lot of times for you to put it in more than one country. So yeah, you can you can fit in more than one country, if you identify with, you know, more than one.

Kerry-Ann:  Yeah. So you should be able to write Jamaica in the boxes then leave a space and then Guyana, in your case. Okay, great. So what happens? Because with a census, there is a, the census is counting people, right? So we know, when you count, you go 1234? And then you said, oh, let me do it again, because somebody confused you? Is there an instance of an over count? Or an under count?

Keshia Morris:Absolutely. So over counting happens, a lot of times, well, there’s two communities that are that are over counted a lot of times, and that is wealthier folks that have you know, two households, they might fill out the census in each of their of their homes. And then college students are actually another population that is often over counted. Just because, you know, they, their parents, you know, still consider them a part of the household, even though they’re off at college. And, you know, the parents count them at their home address. And then the students were receive this the form after college addresses, and they’re filling it out there as well. So in that instance, it is best for college students to fill it out at their at their residence at the college and not at their home address.

Kerry-Ann:  That makes sense. And what about undercounting?

Keshia Morris:Yeah, so under counting happens, so there is a large immigrant population for sure that are often under counted in the census. And you know, that is one, we’re largely renters, and we move around a lot. So when folks are undercounted and also young children are also another demographic that are often under counted in the census. And as I mentioned, before, you know, people don’t think to count about their babies, you know, children under five years old, whether or not they should be counted in the census. So, to combat undercounting of our communities, we really think that education is, is something that we should be advocating, you know, talk to you, if you know about the census, you should talk to your neighbor about the census, we should also be making sure that we’re not only reaching people at their households, because, you know, a lot of times the Census Bureau might not know that where you’re living is a household and urban communities there are, you know, multi, multi level, multi family households, and 

Kerry-Ann:  I was just about to say that, you know, in New York, you know, you have people renting basement apartments that they may not have legally registered with the city, or they have a basement apartment, and they’re renting rooms. So, you know, in one apartment, you have all these people living there. And, you know, in that way, there’s undercount. So what happens in a situation where, you know, you know, they, they that a Census form is sent to an address, but a landlord who’s renting out his second floor to three different tenants, as they’re renting out rooms, I’m not knocking that, but I’m just trying to see, how can they get the count for let’s say, you know, is it based on what mail goes to that address at? How do they determine how many forms to send to a particular address?

Keshia Morris:Yes. So they would get, if the Census Bureau does not know that there are, you know, three separate families living at one address, you will still receive that singular postcard with unique ID. But everyone in that house, everyone that’s at that address, can, you know, use that unique ID to fill out their form online. If it goes past that, that period, where, you know, people are filling out their form online, you have the paper format your house, you know, the landlord should include everyone. And that is at that address on that paper form. So regardless of you know, how many different families there are, you can actually request additional paper forms as well, and you want to do it that way.

Kerry-Ann:  And so would that be a scenario where, you know, let’s say, I’m the landlord, who’s like, yeah, I rent out, I have rent out rooms to different people, and I only got one form, and I believe that everybody should do the census. So can I have them do the form online? And then that would be an instance where my tenants can do the form, but not necessarily submit? The user ID? I don’t know. I’m just asking. 

Keshia Morris:Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. 

Kerry-Ann:  That makes sense to me. Because, you know, you want to make sure that our community are counted, I am the interview that we did with I did with Marlon Hill, a few weeks ago, it was just like, it’s so important to be counted for us to be active in our communities. And, you know, the hiding, I understand why we do it, believe me, I do. But there are other things that we, it’s to our detriment, because we are not for those of us who can who are here, legally, are citizens or whatever, we should really participate. Because the effects are felt beyond schools, beyond roads, you know, how many hospitals in our neighborhoods are closing, and we have to travel to a whole different neighborhood to get, you know, services, you know, it all these little things are dependent, you know, the buses, you know, the bus routes, how many buses are being put on the routes, you know, all of these little things, you know, as much as the New York City subway is run by New York State, or, you know, they still have to get federal funding. So if the train is running on time, I live close by the L train. And there was a whole debacle about the L train being put out a service, all those things are affected because of the money that’s needed. So we really, this episode is really intended to educate people about the census, what it is, what’s the purpose of it is just 10 questions, you know, and you know, even if the 11th one goes on it, you heard the responses that are on there. And you know, legally we can’t be prosecuted for anything we put on the census. So what is the as we wrap up, because this is not a one time episode, we talked about this, this is an ongoing conversation, to educate people about the census and the importance of the census. But in the meantime, until things get finalized, what is what are like two things you want people to take away from this conversation? And in order to kind of build more education and awareness around the census and the importance of the census?

Keshia Morris:Yeah, I mean, the one main thing that I think that people should take away is that our power is in the census. So if we want to change how, you know, our system of government works, if we don’t like the policies and procedures that you know, our government is proceeding with, then it is vitally important that we all participate in the census, you made a really great connection Kerry when you said that, you know, the census is like our vote, you know, the same way that there are people out there, you know, trying to make sure that everyone votes in 2020, we also need to be making sure that everyone is filling out their census form in 2020.

Kerry-Ann:  Awesome, and I will have a link to sample of the 2020 census. Could you talk a little bit about the sample that I’ll be sharing with people? I don’t want to speak off, off course, about what that is, but you did provide me an example of what the 2020 form would look like.

Keshia Morris:Yeah. So what Kerry will be sharing is a, a test form that was used in Providence, Rhode Island in 2018, just last year, that, you know, went to all the residents of Providence County, Rhode Island. So this is what the Census Bureau tested to make sure that you know, they have all their procedures down pat, before 2020 comes. So if there are no changes to the census, with, as we talked about a question on citizenship being the 11th question, this form is what you will see in 2020.

Kerry-Ann:  Okay, and then the final question, Common Cause is, you know, you’re working with Common Cause to help with the census, how can the community interact with Common Cause? Like, how, how is the partnership work? And, you know, really, what is the relationship with common cause in a community? And is it something that people reach out to Common Cause if they see something I don’t know, expand a little bit about how Common Cause works with the community?

Keshia Morris:Absolutely. So there are a few initiatives that we are taking on in the outset, I mentioned that we are in about 19 states that are working for a fair and accurate count a couple of those couple of things that we are doing in most states, is that we’re advocating for additional funding at the state and local level for the census. So federally, you know, the census has been underfunded at the national level. But we believe that, you know, states have a lot to lose if the count isn’t right in 2020. So we’re advocating for a number of a number of states to supplement federal funding and put some money towards making sure there’s adequate outreach to communities ahead of the 2020 census. And then we are also working with communities to, you know, form local, what’s called complete count committees, which is really just a grouping of people that you know, care about the census, realize the importance of it, and want to work to make sure that there are solutions in the community to make sure that, you know, people are filling out their census form. So, for example, in rural communities that might not have great internet, access, people in the community can come together and, and make sure that you know, the local library, has somebody there that is familiar with the census and can help people fill out their forms, or, you know, you can have people come to a community center and email those type of things, to make sure that you know, people have directions on how to fill out their form. So you know, you can get in contact with any of our local offices, you can go online to our website, it has all of our contact information, I’ll give you mine, as well. But our website is common you can go on our website, you can find out more about the census or you can just email me directly at Keshia Morris, K. Morris at common

Kerry-Ann:  Okay, and that’s where people will find out about the complete count committees and all of that good stuff. And you know, if there is one in their area, or how to go about creating one in their area, if there isn’t, 

Keshia Morris:yes, absolutely. Yes. 

Kerry-Ann:  Okay. So everyone thank you for listening. This is not going to be or last conversation about the census because it is important for our community. And I want to thank Keshia and Common Cause for the work that they are doing and for Keshia, to enlighten us about really what the census is forget the politics and the scare tactics around the census. The census is something that we should be doing, especially as we look at what we need for our communities. And so, again, I encourage you to tell your neighbors encourage people to participate in the census. And if you have any questions, you have Keshia email; I’ll put all of that information in the show notes. And if you have any questions just reach out to me if you’re not sure anything, and like I like to say at the end of the show, walk good.


Kerry-Ann Reid-Brown is Founder & host of Carry On Friends one of the first podcasts dedicated to the Caribbean American Experience. She is leading the way for Caribbean Podcast as the founder of Breadfruit Media, the first Caribbean podcast production company; and founder of the Caribbean Podcast Directory a place to discover podcasts by people of Caribbean Heritage.