Guest Commentary

President Trump, an underfunded census would leave rural America disconnected

Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and Nuns on the Bus
Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and Nuns on the Bus Courtesy photo

We are now one year away from the start of the 2020 census. Maybe you don’t give much thought to the census, but if we don’t get this right, the results will be catastrophic. In our nation, if you are not counted by the Census Bureau, then you are not seen. You are not seen by government agencies and businesses trying to meet needs and allocate resources. In short, you are left behind.

We cannot begin to redress these sins of omission without accurately counting our sisters and brothers whom our government has not wanted to see. That’s why I, as a Catholic sister, advocate for fully funding the 2020 census as a faith-rooted justice issue. I know that we can only thrive once 100 percent of our nation is counted and made visible. President Donald Trump recently tweeted deriding funding for the census, but this isn’t a frill. This is a constitutional mandate.

My work at NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and with Nuns on the Bus heightened the urgency of this issue for me. Our bus trips do advocacy for the common good in order to mend the gaps that tear the very fabric of our society. Often, we have found ourselves on back roads, meeting new friends in hard to reach communities who often feel forgotten. That’s why in 2019, we began a series of “Rural Roundtables” to listen to and learn from the experiences of those who live in rural areas. I found myself reflecting on these faces as I prayed about the upcoming census. If the Census Bureau isn’t fully funded, who will come to count our new friends in rural places?

Everywhere we held our roundtables, we heard that these communities felt disconnected technologically and culturally. There is a fear that the 2020 census is being planned in a way that works for city folks, but leaves out rural America. There has been a push to move the census online, while rural America still has limited access to broadband.

Flat or insufficient funding has already forced the Census Bureau to cancel two of three planned tests of its new online format. If the bureau can’t afford to test its own online platform, how can it afford reach those who have no access to broadband internet?

This is not a partisan issue. All Republicans and Democrats support programs that rely on accurate census information. The information provided by the census is so intrinsic to our lives that a failure to provide adequate funding for the Census Bureau will affect every single American.

It’s not just government programs that need accurate census data. Businesses use information collected by the census to decide where to expand their services. Broadband is the perfect example. One of the reasons that rural America doesn’t have access to broadband internet is because they were undercounted in the last census. Internet providers used census data as a factor when deciding where to expand. Now, hard to count communities are even more disconnected. As the telecom industry moves to adopt the 5G standard, another low count would leave rural America even further behind.

The census is where social justice intersects with bureaucracy, data and business. This giant, constitutionally mandated government count may not seem like something that would get nuns writing opinion pieces, but Catholic Sisters work with hard to count populations every day. We see what it means for these folks to be left behind and forgotten. President Trump, to ensure that everyone counts, Congress must fully fund the 2020 census.

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and the leader of Nuns on the Bus.