At this point in time, it should not be surprising that Puerto Ricans have grown very weary of the state and federal government. Both have failed us in a big way, and much of that distrust is manifested in the lowest participation rate for the Decennial Census thus far – a questionnaire that, since 1910, the federal government conducts every ten years in Puerto Rico to measure the population and other important demographic variables.
Puerto Rico does not participate in all federal surveys, including several that gather valuable information on social and economic aspects. However, Puerto Rico is included as part of the Decennial Census and the information collected by this effort directly affects the public policy decisions that governs the population.
Understandably, Puerto Ricans don’t respond to the promise of Federal funds in the same way residents of U.S. states do, but there is a lot of truth behind the slogans that make up the Census Bureau’s campaigns every ten years. For example, if we don’t know how many people reside in a town, how will we know how many schools, hospitals, or homes are needed there? How can government budgets or public works be managed without understanding the size of our population?
The Decennial Census is a vital tool, not only for the government, but also for the academic, private and nonprofit sectors. Our research at the Center for a New Economy would be impossible without population data. It’s the starting point for evaluating a number of economic and sociological aspects, and formulating public policy proposals.
In the absence of empirical data, we are left with half-truths. That is why it is worrisome that, during the month of July, four months after having extended the deadline to answer the Census, only 25% of the residents of Puerto Rico have completed the questionnaire. Minnesota, the state with the highest number of responses, has a 72%, participation rate.
Our apathy towards government efforts is understandable. We have endured nearly 15 years of a prolonged economic contraction. We have experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, toppled governments, and, last but not least, a pandemic. At best, federal and state aid to respond to the latest disasters came late; at worst, their absence was conspicuous. That is perhaps the reason why we have ignored the 2020 Census. How can a Puerto Rican who lost his home and has not yet received the corresponding aid have any confidence in its government? How much extra time does a Puerto Rican who works hard have to sit down to fill out a questionnaire? What desire could a Puerto Rican have to answer questions about ethnicity and race when Latinos are constantly marginalized?
All of this without taking into account that we are being bombarded with surveys and polls all the time. Likes, happy faces, thumbs up; our modern life is inundated with polls and questionnaires that are often sweetened with economic incentives or a promise of prizes. Faced with such a scenario, it’s hard to think that, only civic obligation will evoke a response to the Decennial Census.
But the truth is that, now more than ever, we should fill out the Decennial Census. Although we feel it is a distant reality from our daily life, the reconstruction of Puerto Rico depends enormously on these population figures. These numbers define public policy and also serve to calculate money allocations. Therefore, we have a lot to lose if we are undercounted.
Data reliability is essential. It is our best approach to a world where decisions are not based on pure speculation. There is a reason why we trust the probability of rain when we want to go to the beach, or survival rates when we undergo surgical procedures. Without robust census data, it costs much more to understand the needs that our population may have.
I worked at the Census Bureau’s Headquarters in Washington D.C. for five years and can attest to its independence and reliability. Their employees fully understand the importance of their work and have a deep commitment to its stewardship. Above all, they value the confidentiality and integrity of the surveys and safeguard against data manipulation. True to that mission, there are only three political appointees in an agency that in any given year has over 15,000 employees. Career personnel are laser-focused on judiciously managing the 130+ surveys that the agency conducts periodically. Although it may not seem like it, the numerical portraits produced by this agency tells the story – and history – of the United States and its territories.
That is why it is so urgent that we fill out the 2020 Census. The process takes no more than ten minutes and can be filed electronically. If we want to tell our story well, we have to make sure we are counted.
The Spanish version of this column was originally published in El Nuevo Día on July 19, 2020.