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In 1982, a landfill was built in a predominantly African American county in North Carolina to bury PCB-laden soil from the majority-white city of Raleigh. The residents in the area responded with massive protests and it became the first time in US history where people were jailed trying to stop a landfill

Although the protestors ultimately lost the battle, it marked a turning point in the 1960s civil rights movement, which merged with the environmental movement producing the study, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. That study became the basis for what we now call “environmental justice”.

“And it was based on census data,” says Kathryn Savoie, Detroit Community Health Director for the nonprofit Ecology Center. “What they showed was that Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics were far more likely to be located in census tracts that had a hazardous waste landfill than white people were.” 

This approach has informed Savoie’s own work in Detroit around issues like the successful effort to shut down the Detroit incinerator through the Breathe Free Detroit campaign. Savoie says she and partners used census data to build their case and show that “Detroit, where the incinerator is located, is overwhelmingly African American and low-income. And the communities that were sending their waste to the incinerator in the largest quantities were overwhelmingly white and upper income.”

The data gathered by the U.S. Census, which includes information on the age, racial background and income level of an area’s residents, is often the statistical basis for legal action and activism around environmental threats. It’s also fundamental to securing needed funding from the federal government and elsewhere to help address social problems. 

“All of this data informs exactly how we understand what our society is,” says Michelle Martinez, Coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. 

Census data is fundamental to helping researchers and emergency responders identify “social determinants of health” or circumstances like age or income that shape health outcomes. With this information, experts can figure out how scarce resources need to be allocated. But in Detroit, factors like race, and poverty have made it difficult to get an accurate count, which can create a downward spiral of disinvestment, lower quality of life and further population loss. 

Savoie says and the city loses roughly $1,800 for every person who isn’t included in the census, which can affect funding for things like public transportationpublic health initiatives, and health centers. Inaccurate data could also affect future efforts to address environmental racism and bring investment back into communities that have been affected by it. 

The University of Michigan recently created a tool that maps the cumulative impacts of environmental injustice in Michigan census tracts. Regulators could use the tool to look at the total impact of polluting industries in a community and who might be most affected based in part on census data around factors like age, race, and income. Cumulative impacts are not currently examined in siting and permitting industrial emissions and discharges.

“What is not considered in (issuing permits) is what is the context where that facility is being placed,” says Savoie. “Is this community already bearing a disproportionate burden?”

California has gone even further using its own mapping tool CalEnviroScreen 3.0 to identify communities hit by environmental injustice and giving them grants to address issues like air and water pollution. (CalEnviroScreen 3.0 is powered in part by–you guessed it–the census.) 

Martinez believes that a similar program in Michigan, “would help provide a social safety net for families that simply can’t deal with the magnitude of the crisis of disinvestment.”

Emergency response is another area where census data could play a crucial role in helping vulnerable populations. Nadia Gaber, a Member of We The People of Detroit Community Research Collective who has studied the impact of water shutoffs in Detroit says that having accurate data to help determine who is at risk during events like heatwaves, floods or disease outbreaks such as the coronavirus, all of which could become more frequent with climate change. In her own research, Gaber found that census data in Detroit from the 2010 count was often inaccurate, perhaps because the foreclosure crisis had dramatically changed neighborhoods. 

Social determinants of health can show how the geography of a place impacts the health of the people who live there, according to Gaber. But without good data, emergency responders may be forced to start from scratch in order to find, for example, the low-income, older residents who might be at risk during a heatwave

“Especially in a city like Detroit, which is so geographically vast and whose density has decreased so much over the last 10, 20 years,” Gaber says, “you come into a problem where it’s actually really important to have accurate up-to-date information on where people are in order to target a public health response.”

To make matters worse, those who are hardest to count–like the homeless population–are, in Gaber’s words, “precisely the same people… most vulnerable to the effects of an outbreak or another public health emergency.”

This year, the census faces new threats like the Trump administration’s failed effort to include a citizenship question that could still discourage immigrant communities from participating. Martinez says that data sharing between the Census Bureau, the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol also contributes to this climate of fear. All of which puts more pressure on community organizers to get people to participate. 

“If the census is not implemented properly,” Martinez says, “then it can be weaponized against our communities who desperately need investment.”

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