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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Census 2010:
Black Inmates Count, But For Who?

I read a great essay by Ron Daniels in his North Star News column Vantage Point a few days ago.  The essay questions how Black inmates should be counted for the purpose of the Census.  He argues that when inmates are not counted as part of the community they lived in before their incarceration, their families and communities lose out on funding and social services.  It's a good read:

The Constitution mandates that every person living in the United States be counted every ten years. As mentioned in a previous article, the Census is more than counting heads. The data collected is critical to the allocation of some $400 million annually in federal tax dollars to state and local governments for schools, housing, hospitals, transportation, roads and safety forces. Census data also determines the apportionment of political districts. As former Congressman Walter Fauntroy often reminds us, there is a direct relationship between political representation/power and the distribution of goods and services to various constituencies in the American body politic. Therefore, given the critical condition of Black communities across the country, achieving a “fair count” to receive a “fair share” of resources and political representation is absolutely imperative.

Unfortunately, because of ineffective outreach methods, a lack of political will by the government and skepticism/suspicion of the government in the Black community, historically, there has always been an undercount of people of African descent. These concerns were the focus of a major meeting of Black leaders with Gary Locke, Secretary of Commerce, recently convened by Marc Morial, President/CEO of the National Urban League. While expressing their commitment to work with the Director of the Census to assure an accurate count, the leaders also shared their concerns about a number of issues that might adversely affect the outcome. There was serious dissatisfaction with the budget and the system for distributing monies to Black media to get the message about Census 2010 to every sector of the Black community. Second, it was strongly recommended that resources be found to fund community based organizations to be systematically engaged in informing Black people about the importance of the Census and working to ensure the return of the questionnaires to secure an accurate count. There was a good exchange of views on these issues, and Secretary Locke pledged to take seriously the group’s recommendations. In general, there is an impression that there is real commitment by the Obama administration to do a much better job than previous administrations to eliminate the undercount of Blacks in the 2010 Census.

However, one issue surfaced, that Secretary Locke seemed perplexed about how to resolve, the huge number of incarcerated Blacks in the prison-jail industrial complex who are counted in the communities in which they are confined rather than in the communities where they and their families live. On the surface, it would not appear to be a major problem. However, in reality, if we recall that Census data is used for the distribution of resources to state and local communities and the apportionment of political representation, this anomaly has devastating consequences for Black communities across the country. According to information compiled by the Fair Count to Fair Share Initiative of the Praxis Project, there are at least 21 counties in the U.S. where incarcerated persons comprise 21% of the population. “In 173 counties, more than half of the Black residents reported in the Census are prisoners.” In New York, “most of the state’s prisoners (66%) are New York City residents, but the vast majority of them (91%) are counted as residents of upstate prisons.” Because of this fact, there are several state senatorial districts in New York that only meet the minimum population requirement because the incarcerated are included in their count. Indeed, there are probably congressional districts around the country that only meet the population requirement because of the incarcerated population. (Read More)

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