Why It Is Critical to Make the 2020 Census Count

February 26, 2018Matt Fidel

In Ki Tisa, God commands Moses to conduct one of the first censuses in the Torah, but rather than instructing Moses simply to count the Israelites, God suggests using a different method. Collect half a shekel from each man, God says, which will then be recorded to calculate the number of Israelite men who can be counted upon to fight in the army.

At first glance, this seems like a strange and inefficient way to determine the battle readiness of the Israelite army. Why didn’t God just command Moses to count the men?

The Talmud suggests that God employs this method because directly counting Jews is forbidden: “The Number of the Children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.” The rabbis note that God demands the half a shekel as “ransom” to protect the Israelites from an impending “plague,” which we are to understand would typically accompany a census. In fact, we read in the Book of Samuel that King David conducts an unauthorized census, which provokes God, who punishes him with a plague that kills 70,000 Israelites.

There are two important lessons Ki Tisa can teach us.

First, we are taught that even our most mundane interactions with other people, such as counting them, are imbued with holiness. Each person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Second, we must resist the urge to associate a group of people solely with a number or statistic. Rather, we must always remember that a collection of people is a collection of unique individuals, each with intrinsic value.

As Reform Jews, we affirm the rights of all human beings. Throughout our texts, we are repeatedly called upon to pursue justice, and we are reminded of our obligation to fight for the equality of all people, no matter their race or religion, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation or immigration status.

In the United States, all that work relies upon an unceremonious, seemingly mundane process which we call the decennial census.

The Constitution mandates that Congress conduct a census every 10 years to count all the people living in the United States. Today, the data gathered by the census is used to allocate federal funding and determine congressional representation; billions of dollars in government aid and essential services and the apportionment of congressional seats relies upon accurate information from the census.

The 2020 decennial census is just around the corner, but a fair and accurate census is all but guaranteed.

The census is dangerously underfunded. President Trump’s latest budget request of $3.8 billion is a good starting point, but Congress must allocate more money if the census is to overcome its growing challenges. Just recently, funding shortfalls forced the U.S. Census Bureau to cancel two field tests, typically run to test new data collection techniques. Communities recovering from recent natural disasters will require special attention and the plan to offer an online response option for the first time will present unique risks. If we are to ensure a fair and accurate census, additional funding is crucial.

In early 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) requested that the Census Bureau add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. The census has counted citizens and non-citizens alike since its inception in 1790, and it has not included questions about citizenship since 1960. If the Census Bureau grants the DOJ’s request, those in immigrant or other minority communities may experience heightened fears about how such information could be used against them or their loved ones, potentially causing response rates from these communities to drop dramatically.

We know that the census has historically undercounted people of color and immigrants, and the DOJ’s request would only compound this problem. That is why the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and nine other major Jewish organizations sent a letter to Secretary Wilbur Ross, urging the U.S. Commerce Department to reject the DOJ’s harmful request.

Although most Americans may not rank the census among their top policy priorities, ensuring a fair and accurate census is critical to the very core of our representative democracy. Call your elected officials at (202) 224-3121 to urge support for full funding for the 2020 census.

As we learn in Ki Tisa, sometimes the most mundane tasks can be filled with holiness. If we truly seek a society in which all people’s voices are heard, and all interests are represented, we must fight to protect the integrity of the 2020 census.

The stakes are high, so let’s make it count.

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