Gary Bass, Executive Director, The Bauman Foundation

The Bauman Foundation works to preserve a true democratic society by working in the areas of economic justice, federal tax policy, income inequality, and government and corporate accountability. Bauman’s grants encourage open government and civic participation in the political process.

Gary Bass is the Executive Director of The Bauman Foundation and an affiliated professor with Georgetown University. We chatted with him recently about the upcoming Census and why it’s critical for funders to ensure a fair and accurate count and how the Census affects immigrant populations.

The Bauman Foundation is dedicated to achieving the values of a true democratic society – the common good and general welfare, as articulated in the Constitution. Thus, our democracy-related grantmaking is at the core of all our grantmaking. We believe that the struggle for true democracy and progressive political and social change is ongoing. Hence, we mostly provide ongoing general support to our grantees and welcome advocacy that encourages systematic changes rather than those that merely ameliorate symptoms. We come to this work with the experience that issue-based changes, such as climate change, immigration, and other current topics, will not likely be advanced without addressing these core democracy issues.

The Foundation strives to keep our eye on the long range even as funding may be used to address short-range, immediate needs. Accordingly, we openly discuss with our grantees what the needs are in any given year while also identifying how these immediate actions can help in the longer run (e.g., the decennial census, redistricting reforms, and other structural changes).

We also consider the philanthropic world in which we operate. Our objective is to partner with other foundations and donors when possible in order to leverage resources and build momentum. Because we can act fast, we are often able to jump-start collaborative projects. We are less risk averse than many of our colleagues, however, which has implications for possible collaborations.

The Foundation views itself not only as a grantmaker but also as an advocate. Our staff are recognized as experts in many of these democracy-related topics. It is not unusual for the Foundation to host meetings involving funders and advocates, write papers and commentaries, submit comments to the government, and more.

The census is a building block of democracy. If we get the count wrong, it will distort democracy for the next decade. Because census data is used by companies to determine when to hire people and where to locate businesses and it is used by researchers to highlight various economic conditions, it is vital to economic justice. It is not enough for government to make information available to claim it is open; that information needs to be timely, accurate, and accessible. An accurate census is a key element of an open government. Finally, census data are used to apportion congressional seats, establish district lines in states, and provide evidence in voting and civil right lawsuits. Thus, the Bauman Foundation agrees with our constitutional framers that the census is a central component of a democracy and is essential to all the issues our Foundation cares about.

The goal of the Census Bureau is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” Unfortunately, there are pressing reasons why philanthropy needs to step up in 2020 to ensure a fair and accurate census.

Formulas based on census counts are used to distribute roughly $700 billion in annual federal funding to states and localities. The data are also used to implement, monitor, and enforce civil rights laws and draw political districts at the state and congressional level. They are used to determine where to build schools, senior centers, hospitals, and other municipal services. Businesses use the census to make decisions about where to invest and how to attract customers; academics and pollsters use it to calibrate survey designs and conduct research; the public rely on the data for accurate information about housing, employment, and other daily news; and the philanthropic community relies on census data to plan grants and evaluate success and failure. Philanthropy also relies on census data to guide investment strategies.

In short, census data provide the basis for virtually all demographic and socioeconomic information used by policymakers at all levels of government, business, philanthropy, community leadership, and research . Thus, the census influences almost every issue philanthropy supports.

Unfortunately, the country is at a tipping point as to whether there will be an accurate census in 2020. A poorly conducted census will have implications that spill out and multiply across government, the private sector, and civil society. Some of the potential problems, such as limits on funding of the census, were known in 2015. Additionally, to save money and to move into the modern era, this will be the first online census, but the Government Accountability Office warned that the Census Bureau’s IT systems may not be ready for 2020 or could fail. This does not even address the potential problems with a digital divide. These concerns about census implementation have grown exponentially since 2015.

In 2015, funders and stakeholder groups agreed on a Plan of Action to pursue a fair and accurate census. The Plan was developed by several foundations that support U.S. democracy projects, including Bauman Foundation, and involved those from the civil rights community, business associations, representatives of state and local governments, and census experts. The focus of the Plan is on reducing any potential undercounts, particularly in communities of color, among young children, and in rural areas. The Plan complements what the Census Bureau will be doing but targets “hard to count” households.

The Plan has three components that guide our strategy today. First, we place a priority on addressing census policy matters, such as federal and state funding or the transition from a paper to an online census. Second, we have developed a plan for a robust “get out the count” effort to do outreach to the hardest to reach. Third, we are trying to engage new players in census work – funders, businesses, state and local governments, faith-based groups, etc.

There is a working group of roughly 15 foundations which calls itself the Census Subgroup and oversees this work through monthly meetings. We operate under an aligned funding model and have shared that with other funders. That is, we identified the organizations and projects we recommend be funded and we encourage foundations to support these efforts. However, if funders prefer, we also established a pooled fund for which the Census Subgroup makes funding recommendations. Either way, we maintain a funding tracker so that funders know how much any given organization or project still needs to raise.

The Census Subgroup works closely with the core stakeholder groups leading much of the operational work on the census. It functions as a collaborative with the stakeholder groups providing feedback and advice to funders on whether the overall strategy needs any modification. The funders provide feedback to the stakeholder groups on gaps they see that need filling. The funders have helped on substance and the stakeholder groups have helped on fundraising. It is in this context that this effort is described as a collaborative.

The Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation’s Funders Census Initiative has developed a toolkit that emphasizes three steps: make a commitment to participate in census issues; convene funders and stakeholders (if not already happening); and provide support for census either through new grants or add-ons to existing grants. Additionally, United Philanthropy Forum and its members are providing trainings for funders on what they can do to engage on census issues.

Given that so many funders are stressed with demands for funding that exceed their ability, it is easy to say that a foundation can’t take on the census. However, not engaging on the census will have longer term consequences that will further increase funding demands on foundations. For example, if there is an inaccurate count, it could lower government funding for needed services in the community.

We can still achieve a fair and accurate count, but we’ll need the help of funders from across the country. Many funders say they do not fund national issues; some national funders say they do not fund local initiatives. The census is both a local and a national issue. If the national pieces are not right, then the cost of doing the census at the local level increases dramatically. Thus, we hope foundations will provide grant support both for local and national efforts – even small amounts of money, when combined, make a big difference. Finally, foundations can play an important role in identifying trusted voices in their community to reach the hard to count and develop ways to help these trusted voices do needed outreach to encourage people to fill out their census survey in 2020.

The U.S. Constitution requires a count of every person living in the United States every ten years. Even so, there are some who believe the census should only count citizens. We can guess why they pursue such an agenda, but the outcomes of this approach do not require guessing. It changes the balance of political power; it changes the allocation of federal funds; and it alters government representation. It discriminates against immigrants and refugees.

Amid threats of deportations and growing distrust of government, many immigrants are afraid to participate in government programs or be on any government lists. Research undertaken by the Census Bureau last year found unprecedented fear among immigrants about filling out the census. Even before last year’s findings, the Census Bureau has consistently found the decennial census undercounts Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities (especially among children under the age of five), while overcounting Whites, which tilts the political playing field and alters how roughly $700 billion is distributed by the federal government.

Making matters worse, on March 26, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to add a citizenship question to the decennial census, which almost certainly will depress response rates among minorities and immigrants. About a month after the Ross decision, there was a legislative proposal in Missouri that would have required state legislative district lines to be based on the number of citizens rather than total population. That proposal failed, but we can expect more of this.

This suggests there is an inextricable link between the census and immigrant rights ­– and unless the citizenship question is removed from the decennial census, there will be many more concerns in the coming years that could dramatically alter the way our democracy functions.

All of us as funders need to take a step back and think about the ongoing challenges to the norms of our democracy. When these norms erode, so too does our democratic way of life. Most foundations do not have a democracy portfolio (and certainly not a census portfolio); for many, it probably would be challenging to start one, but we need to do something different.

It is time for us to have conversations about the broader civil society challenges, addressing imbalances of power, ways to strengthen fairness and equity, and how to not only preserve, but also to strengthen our democracy. These are trying times, which make it most opportune to think about new approaches to funding.

Working on the census has been richly rewarding for me. I have had a chance to meet funders supporting education, immigration, equity, social justice, environment, poverty, healthcare, and more. Many are interested in local community needs, while others focus on state, national, or even global issues. Some are big, some small. Some support services, others research, and yet others advocacy. What we all have in common is our need for accurate information, a belief in fairness, and vision for a strong democracy grounded in an active civil society. Funders are at our strongest when we recognize a problem and work collaboratively to solve it. The census presents such a situation and an opportunity to work collaboratively.

When viewed through this lens, I have not had to convince anyone to support the census. Instead, I’ve helped them see that funding census work helps them fulfill their issue area interest.