Good Census Sense: Sharing Wealth By Standing Up To Be Counted

map of Cleveland's neigbourhoods
Downtown - Cleveland photo by Tim1965 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Neighbourhoods in Cleveland, Ohio, with the downtown marked in red. Just 50% of Cleveland's residents participate in the national census, depriving their city of significant public funding.

People have been collecting census data for at least 2000 years. What began as simple head count has become quite sophisticated today. Why should we be counted? What good does it do? Does it do harm? The article featured here, which about a neighbourhood in Cleveland, looks at some of these questions.

The sophisticated counting we do today is a reference point for distributing public funding. This is not a huge issue if one or two people are missed, but think about what happens in a community where as many as 30% of their residents aren’t counted. When the funding for a public program is distributed, it is based on those who were counted. Stretching funding for 70 to cover 100 is tough. It’s especially difficult when budgets are being systematically reduced. Now the funding for 50 is less than before and it still needs to cover 100.

Rounding out the information about the heads being counted can be beneficial, especially when the funding is being targeted to support particular needs. A community that has a high proportion of high income earners will have less use for food stamps than a community of the same size with a high proportion of people with very low incomes.

The question of whether harm comes from counting is well founded. People do use data about race for example, to assign blame. This can make people wary of participating in a census. But those data also help us to understand the extent to which experience is racialized.1 One has only to look at the rates of incarceration in Canada and the United States to see that Black and Indigenous people are incarcerated far more often than their numbers in the population suggest.

The story about the Lee-Harvard neighbourhood in Cleveland also shines another light on census taking. Being counted is to participate in the community and its civic life. It’s a way to check in on neighbours and see how they are faring. During COVID-19, this is not without its challenges, as people are reluctant to open their doors to strangers. But opening one’s door to a neighbour is a different story altogether. Read more about the neighbourly efforts to participate in the census in cleveland.comLee-Harvard’s high census response rate could teach other neighborhoods a few tricks


  1. Here is one recent example: COVID-19 Recovery: Reversing Decades Of Labour Discrimination