Census 2020 and Engaging the AANHPI Faith Community

Advancing Justice | AAJC
May 16 · 4 min read

By James Hong, Dan Nejfelt, and Raima Roy

Faith can play a major role in the lives of members of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community. Thus, it is important to engage communities of faith as a partner in sharing information about the significance of the census and how it can impact the people in their faith community.

Why the Census is Important

The census is constitutionally mandated by Article I, Section 2, meaning it is required by law. It is critical for civil rights enforcement such as the protection of voting rights. Unfortunately, there has been a historical differential undercount, where certain communities including the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community and other immigrant and communities of color have been missed more often than non-Hispanic white communities, which results in an inaccurate and uneven allocation of money and power.

The census data results will dictate the allocation of $800 billion to states and localities annually. Census data are critical for reapportioning 435 seats in the House of Representatives to states according to their population sizes. With a lack of accurate data, there is inadequate funding for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and more.

The census is important for the AANHPI community for several reasons. In the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau estimated that 16 million AANHPIs were not counted. Our communities have been undercounted for decades, putting our families, neighborhoods, and communities at a disadvantage. Today, roughly 1 in 5 Asian Americans and one third of NHPIs live in hard-to-count census tracts. Communities that are especially in risk of being undercounted include those that have limited English speaking skills and/or are low income, including several communities in the AANHPI community.

Census 2020 and Faith Communities

Congregations have significant outreach with AANHPI communities that most need to be counted. As organizers and advocates, we must approach congregations with messages that will resonate with their faith.

Congregations are membership-driven organizations, highly organized, and hierarchical. Thus, getting buy-in from leadership through respectful engagement will be crucial for access and more importantly, endorsement of an organization’s action or campaign. Organizations should prepare for a wide variety of responses and levels of engagement by congregations, from excited to even suspicious or apathetic. The census presents us with a rare opportunity to learn about and discuss the congregation’s demographics, their needs, and the community at large with faith leadership, and even learn about how they successfully motivate community members. It will be invaluable to listen as much as it is to herald the benefits of participating in the upcoming census.

AANHPI congregations and faith leaders may be less receptive to typical progressive values or messages, so preparing “non-political” messages is necessary. For example, if the congregation is of a single ethnicity or race, then it is likely that visibility and recognition of this ethnicity or race is a message that will resonate. Next, helping one’s neighbor is a universal value among people of faith, and this can take concrete shape around preparing to help others to fill out the census form, given high rates of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander linguistic isolation and unfamiliarity with the U.S. Census. Finally, we can appeal to congregants’ interest in supporting their children and their education. Children are the most undercounted age group in the United States. The largest federal programs that use census data include Head Start, the National School Lunch Program, and college Pell Grants, so you can imagine the widespread implications of inaccurate numbers having a disproportionate effect on our children’s education.

Quick Tips on Engaging AANHPI Faith Communities:

· If you are faith leader in your community, join the Census Faith Council! Sign up to be a Census Faith Ambassador and recruit others to be Ambassadors! Get training and materials at:

· Preach about the importance of being counted in the 2020 Census and what’s at stake for your community

· Spread the word through faith networks such as: food pantries, housing, ESL classes, schools, etc.

· Have plans for significantly different levels of interest based on denomination, faith tradition, and ethnicity

· Keep in mind that you may need to tailor your messages for an audience of new immigrants or an audience that is American-born

With a year to go before the census, it is a great time to begin building bridges with faith leaders and congregations that will help AANHPI overcome the many barriers to full participation in the 2020 Census. Seeing congregations as community organizers and identifying the messages most likely to increase participation in the census will be key to successful engagement with faith communities.

James Hong is the former Deputy Director of State Capacity Building at State Voices, Dan Nejfelt is the Training Director at Faith in Public Life, and Raima Roy is the Program Associate for Census and Civic Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

For more census resources, go to

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb @kjbagchi

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.