Opinion | The first step to social change is easy: fill out the census

COVID-19 and nationwide protests over police misconduct have dominated headlines in recent weeks, but three other 2020 stories – not entirely overlooked, but with far less coverage – will affect the economic and political well-being of Michigan residents for many years. They’re inextricably intertwined, not only with each other, but with the stories that have drowned them out, too.

Eric Lupher is President of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Kurt R. Metzger is Director Emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, Mayor of the City of Pleasant Ridge.

First, the state is changing the way it draws its political districts. Second, we’re looking at the need for social justice and an end to institutional racism. Keep in mind the only way for those events to lead to meaningful change for those who have previously felt disenfranchised and forgotten, is – story number three – to participate in the census.

Michigan is in the early stages of forming the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The Commission was created by a constitutional amendment in 2018 that took responsibility for drawing district lines away from the state legislature and gave it to citizens, through a process wherein people from across the state have an opportunity to participate. The selection and map-drawing processes are geared toward giving equal voice to both major political parties and a strong voice to independent voters.

Last week the list of some 9,000 potential commissioners was narrowed to 200. The process will continue to winnow that list further, until ultimately 13 will be appointed to the Commission. They will be responsible for drawing boundaries for Representatives to the U.S. House, State Senators, and State House of Representatives.

Voting data show that Michigan has been highly gerrymandered for the last couple of decades, in favor of the Republican Party. This has created a sense of disenfranchisement for many people in non-Republican areas of the state. This citizen-driven reform should provide a more balanced and fair process of drawing districts for our representatives and, in doing so, increase the voice of those who have felt left out.

As the districting reform is taking place, residents of Michigan are gaining a newfound awareness of the need for social justice and the elimination of institutional racism, something felt In Michigan, across the nation, and throughout the world. The murder of George Floyd and many others of color has created new demands to instill equity and justice in the structure of our local, state, and federal institutions.

Reformers are calling for changes in the funding of our public safety systems, in access to education, and in hearing the needs of all citizens. These changes can be brought about through the policymaking process. But for those changes to reflect the wants of those that have felt harmed by the process, they must get involved.

And that shines a light on the third story, the census. Even during the pandemic, the U.S. government has been conducting the once-a-decade head count of the country (Census Day was April 1). The enumeration of every person, in every community, in every state is necessary for the job the new commission will take on. It is also used at the federal and state levels to determine funding levels, across a myriad of programs, among the states and different communities. (Including education, public health, and other funding that will help the state respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

While Michigan is the first state to surpass their 2010 self-response rate, many low-income communities, as well as those with high concentrations of people of color, have had poor response rates to date in the census.

For example, while Michigan has a response rate of 68 percent (as of June 25), a number of our major cities of color are far behind – Highland Park (44.4 percent), Flint (47.3 percent), Detroit (47.6 percent), Muskegon Heights (50.2 percent), Benton Harbor (51.4 percent), River Rouge (51.6 percent), Ecorse (51.9 percent), Hamtramck (55 percent) and Saginaw (56.1 percent). 

It is possible that the response rates are made artificially low by the way the Census Bureau identifies households to be counted. All structures that may be inhabitable receive a census form. We know that the exodus of families from some of these communities has left abandoned, vacant buildings that are not occupied and will not get a response. Nevertheless, the need remains for more households in these communities to be counted.

It is critically important for everyone to participate in the census, to bring about change and to provide complete and accurate numbers for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to use in their important task.

The commissioners will only be able to use the data provided to them by the census – the data that we, the residents of Michigan, provide. Without a full count, these communities will continue to be underrepresented and a sense of disenfranchisement will be allowed to continue. Please go online and take a few minutes to fill out the census form. If you need help, contact your local government or others who can assist you.

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