The Black Woman’s Guide to the 2020 CensuS

The Black Woman’s Guide to the 2020 CensuS


This spring, the U.S. government is conducting the 2020 census to determine how many women, men, and children live in the United States. This population count happens every ten years and is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The census determines how the federal government allocates money, political representation, and therefore POWER to every community in the U.S. for the next decade.  It’s really important!

Counting everyone may sound like a straightforward task, but unfortunately it’s not. And this is especially true when it comes to Black households and communities. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, 1.7 million Black people could be undercounted in the 2020 census.

An undercount of Black families would be devastating. The census drives the distribution of about $880 billion in tax dollars for schools, roads, and other public services. For example, data from the 2020 census will decide which communities will (and will not) get money for:

  • new and existing schools; 
  • better public transportation; 
  • health care, including Medicaid; and
  • more!  

If we don’t stand up and get counted, we’ll lose out on the funding and political representation we deserve.

We wrote this guide because we believe that #BlackWomenCount

We hope the guide inspires you to:

  • take the census—and encourage everyone you know to do the same,
  • check “Black,” and
  • continue to exercise your power by connecting with a civic engagement organization in your community.

In love and solidarity,

This guide was co-authored by Dr. Kerry Mitchell Brown.

BlackPAC is an independent, Black-led organization that uses the power of year-round political engagement and elections to change our economic, justice, and political systems.

Black Progressive Action Coalition is an independent progressive coalition of individuals and organizations committed to empowering Black communities through civic engagement, community mobilization, and campaigns that turn our issues into policies that change people’s lives. 

BlackHer is a media company created by and for Black women.  We are amplifying the leadership of Black women and educating and inspiring each other to act for progressive change.

“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth.”

Septima Clark


The census is the official population count of every person living in the United States, regardless of citizenship status. It is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and happens every ten years. 


Fun fact: We held the first census in 1790, and people were counted in the original 13 states, the Southwest Territory (which later became Tennessee), and the “districts” of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont.


Diane Nash


The fundamental reason that we hold a census every ten years is to determine our representation in Congress. In 2021, data from the 2020 census will be used to divvy up congressional seats. This process is called apportionment.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

“Apportionment is the process of dividing the 435 memberships, or seats, in the U.S. House of Representatives among the 50 states, based on the state population counts that result from each decennial census. The apportionment results will be the first data published from the 2020 census, and those results will determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next 10 years.”

There are more reasons that the census is such a powerful political tool:  

  • The census is used to draw new voting districts. In 2021, states will draw new districts based on 2020 census data. (In most states, the legislature decides district boundaries, which is one reason that it’s so important that we vote in 2020!)
  • The federal government uses the data from the census to determine how much federal funding goes to communities, and by extension, into our pockets. In some states, it’s estimated that undercounts lead to a loss of $1,500 per year per person in funding!  Many federal programs—like Head Start, SNAP, and the National School Lunch Program—rely on census data to determine how much money each community gets.  For a full list of key programs that depend on census data, see Federal Programs Driven By Census Data, below. 
  • Companies also use census data to determine where to start up, expand, or relocate, which can translate into more or fewer jobs for us. 
  • Other public agencies and nonprofits use census data to address social and economic challenges in communities. For example, the Centers for Disease Control is using census data to track and map the spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus. 

We know that the census is a very important social, economic, and political tool for Black people, and we need to do everything in our power to ensure that #EveryBlackPersonCounts.

Fun fact: Today, each member of the U.S. House of Representatives represents approximately 747,000 people.

when Black women gain political power, we champion policies and programs that benefit everyone.”



According to the Congressional Black Caucus, “undercounting African Americans in the 2020 census could have real consequences because ‘African-American children and families are disproportionately affected by poverty and federal programs designed to alleviate the impact of poverty.’”

Below are some of the federal programs that rely on census data:

  • Head Start – This program provides early childhood education to kids from low-income families. Black children account for 29% of the kids in the program.
  • Title I Grants – These grants provide federal resources to schools with high numbers of low-income children and are intended to help all students fulfill state academic requirements.
  • Special Education Grants – These grants are used to assist children with disabilities in order to help schools meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In 2012–2013, approximately 15% of Black children needed IDEA resources.
  • Child Care and Development Fund – This fund helps low-income parents access childcare so that they can go to work or school. Black children represented 41% of the children in this program in 2015.
  • SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – This program is the nation’s most extensive domestic food assistance program, serving 42.1 million individuals each month. Around 26% of Black people received SNAP benefits in 2015.
  • National School Lunch Program – This program provides free or reduced-price meals to lower-income students.
  • Section 8 Housing Program – This program subsidizes the rent payments of low-income individuals to enable them to secure affordable housing. Black people constituted 45% of the recipients of this program in 2010.
  • Medicaid – This joint federal-state program finances the delivery of primary and acute medical services to a diverse, low-income population. An estimated 16 million Black people enrolled in this program in 2012.
  • Pell Grants – Data is used from the census to estimate the number of Pell Grants that will be awarded to college students each year.
  • Highway spending – Funding for national infrastructure is apportioned according to census data.

“Our communities must be counted.”

Congresswoman Karen Bass


“Census Day is April 1, 2020, and between March 12 and March 20, 2020, every household in the U.S. should receive a notice to complete the census.   

This will be the first time in history that we have the option of completing the census in three ways:

  • Mail
  • Phone
  • Online—via your laptop or mobile phone

At the Census Bureau website, you can find important 2020 census dates and learn more about the ways to respond to the 2020 census. 

“Whether you have a Ph.D. or no D, we’re in this bag together.”

Fannie Lou Hamer


Take the Census

The most important way that you can get involved in the census is to take it.  And the good news is that the census is not long. You will answer basic questions about yourself and the people who stay with you.  


  1. How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?
  2. Were there any additional people staying here on April 1, 2020, that you did not include in Question 1?
  3. Is this house, apartment, or mobile home [. . . owned with a mortgage, owned without a mortgage, rented, etc.]? 
  4. What is your telephone number?
  5. What is Person 1’s name?
  6. What is Person 1’s sex?
  7. What is Person 1’s age and what is Person 1’s date of birth?
  8. Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?
  9. What is Person 1’s race? 
  10. Print name of Person 2.
  11. Does this person usually live or stay somewhere else? 
  12. How is this person related to Person 1?

Visit the 2020 census website for more information, including why each question is asked and  how to respond to each question

Check “Black” 

Undercounting of Black folks on the census can occur because of the way that the census labels us. In the first census, taken in 1790, the race categories were “White Males and White Females,” “All Other Free Persons,” and “Slaves.” (Not very empowering for us!) In 2020, the race category for Black people is called “Black or African American.” In fact, this year is the first time that the descriptor “Negro” is not included. What a difference 230 years makes!

In 2020, in addition to checking “Black or African American,”—you will be asked to provide more details about your specific origin (ethnic category), if known and desired. For example, you can write in “African American,” “Jamaican,” “Haitian,” “Nigerian,” “Ethiopian,” “Somali,” etc. Cultural identity is essential to Black people, especially those of us with known family immigration histories, and the 2020 census will afford us the opportunity to formally share our ethnicities. See example below.

We encourage you to check “Black” to ensure that the census captures your lived experience as a Black person in this country. According to The Conversation, even President Obama understood the importance of this.  

“Former President Barack Obama, for example, was chided for not checking both the white and black race boxes and instead marking his race solely as “Black” on the 2010 census. Critics argued that he was denying his European ancestry. My guess is that Obama understood that these data are used to examine inequalities that have much more to do with “street race” than with whatever ethnic, familial or genetic origins one may have.”

We all show up in this world with the fullness of our intersections and identities, and we celebrate the diversity that makes up the African diaspora. And we can all attest to the experience of being Black in the U.S. Checking “Black” is a celebration of our diversity and our community’s historic and ongoing contributions to this nation.  At the same time, checking “Black” will help to avoid an undercount of Black Americans in the 2020 census, which could have dire economic and political consequences for our community. 

Get Connected

Part of the power of the census is that it’s an opportunity to stand up and be counted. You can also use the census to connect with civic organizations in your community and get more politically active.  Because, as you know, there is another very important political activity taking place this year—the 2020 election!  Below is a list of organizations that are working hard all year round to make sure that our voices count.  Check them out and get involved!

“If we don’t get counted, we don’t count.”

Judith Browne Dianis

The Undercounting of Black Folks from 1790 to Today

Three-fifths Compromise


“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.”

The U.S. has a long history of undercounting Black people. The first census, undertaken in 1790, followed the methodology set out in the “three-fifths compromise,” a clause in the U.S. Constitution that imposed a ratio for valuing enslaved people in relation to free people. In force until 1868, the three-fifths clause fractioned the personhood of enslaved people, defined enslaved people as inherently less than other people, and helped make enslavement the basis for a formal racial state. The three-fifths clause is about so much more than representation and taxation. It shaped and continues to shape the structure of American political institutions. 

The legacy of this undercount serves as an indicator of who does and does not count (or matter) in this country. Today, many Black communities are still characterized as “hard to count.”  For example, the map below shows a hard-to-count, majority Black community in Representative Karen Bass’s district.



Because representation and taxation inherently involve questions about what kinds of political demands can be imposed on the population, as well as which citizens are empowered to make such demands, they help mold the fundamental rules of government and what political actors can and cannot do.  It is important that Black folks understand and push back against all systems and ideologies used to diminish our political power and agency as American citizens.   

Prison Gerrymandering & Undercounting Returning Citizens

In many states, the practice of prison gerrymandering is a mechanism used to dilute the political representation of Black folks and blunt our power. 

Here’s how it works.   

The census counts incarcerated persons based on where they are incarcerated instead of where they lived before they were convicted. Due to the growth of prisons in rural America over the last 40 years, this has led to an overcount of rural populations and an undercount of urban communities that has had a significant political and financial impact on Black communities. 

Federal funds are allocated to communities based on census counts. Undercounting incarcerated people can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars not going to Black communities where returning citizens will eventually reside, and where their families currently live. Additionally, counting incarcerated people as residents of the county in which they are incarcerated has a significant impact on congressional apportionment and can decrease representation for urban communities while increasing representation for rural areas.   

Together, we can change prison gerrymandering to insure our communities get the resources we need and deserve. Many states, like New York, have done just that.



In Black communities, there continues to be widespread mistrust of the government and outsiders. The Trump administration’s recent (but unsuccessful) attempts to add a citizenship question to the census have made matters worse. You may be afraid that the Census Bureau will share your information with government agencies and others who could make things difficult. For example, you may fear the loss of safety net or public assistance benefits if the presence of a wage earner in your home is disclosed. You may fear the loss of housing if your landlord finds out that people who are not on the lease are staying in your home. 

We understand your concerns, but please know that it is against the law for the Census Bureau to share individual data with anyone, and all responses to the census are confidential. We are hoping that you can be the trusted voice in your community to mitigate this real concern.

According to the Census Bureau

“We will never share a respondent’s personal information with immigration enforcement agencies, like ICE; law enforcement agencies, like the FBI or police; or allow it to be used to determine their eligibility for government benefits. The results from any census or survey are reported in statistical format only.” 

That said, it’s still important to be alert to fraud. The Census Bureau will not ask you for your bank account information, credit card number, or Social Security number.  Do not complete forms that ask for this personal information.

“Good leaders are always at the ready, but not always at the front. ”

Stacey Abrams


Completing the census is our civic duty and is one of the most important power-building actions we can take in 2020. It’s also a great time to get plugged into a civic engagement organization in your community. We’re proud to amplify the leadership of Black women across the nation who are doing critical power-building work all year round.  Check them out!

Stacey Carless
NC Counts Coalition
North Carolina

Lurie Daniel Favors
Center for Law and Social Justice
New York

Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett
We Count Oregon


Ponsella Hardaway

Moné Holder
New Florida Majority

Nsombi Lambright
One Voice

Marsha Mitchell
Community Coalition

Charlane Oliver
The Equity Alliance

Nse Ufot
New Georgia Project

Michele L. Watley
Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet


Jennifer Wells
Our Future West Virginia
West Virginia


“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

Angela Davis



Action St. Louis (Missouri)

Advance North Carolina 

BLOC (Wisconsin)

California Black Census and Redistricting Hub

Center for Law and Social Justice (New York)

Community Coalition (California)

The Equity Alliance (Tennessee)

The Freedom Bloc (Ohio)

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth

MOSES (Michigan)

Mothering Justice (Michigan)

NC BLOC: North Carolina Black Leadership and Organizing Collective

NC Counts Coalition (North Carolina)

New Georgia Project 

One Voice (Mississippi)

Power Coalition for Equity and Justice (Louisiana)

Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet (Missouri)

Texas Organizing Project

Workers Center for Racial Justice (Illinois)


Advancement Project

Black Futures Lab


Black Progressive Action Coalition

Black Voters Matter

Black Women’s Roundtable

Color of Change

Congressional Black Caucus

Higher Heights for America

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights


National Urban League

Prison Policy Initiative


Sunday Civics

United States Census Bureau


2020 Census: Who’s at Risk of Being Miscounted? by Urban Institute

Counting for Dollars 2020: Fifty-five Large Federal Census-guided Spending Programs: Distribution by State by GW Institute of Public Policy

HTC (Hard to Count) 2020 Maps

How Republicans Are Undermining the 2020 Census, Explained with a Cartoon by Vox

On Eve of 2020 Census, Many People in Hard-to-Count Groups Remain Concerned about Participating by Urban Institute

Race/Ethnicity and the 2020 Census by Census 20/20