One of the most pressing civil rights issues of the moment concerns the 2010 Census. Funding for hospitals, schools, roads, senior centers, emergency services and other infrastructure are all directly tied to the population counts produced by the Census Bureau. Under-represented communities suffer when they don’t receive the funds necessary to fully support their needs.

Yet, in virtually every decade, African-Americans have been undercounted and by no small margin. Other groups that have also been at risk for being undercounted include children, immigrants, inner city residents, those who move frequently and the homeless. This enormous undercount has had major consequences for black communities all across the country as they lose out on critical and necessary federal funding. After the 2000 Census, California lost more than $1.5 billion and Texas lost more than $1 billion. Major urban areas were also on the losing end with Atlanta losing more than $50 million and Brooklyn alone losing close to $270 million as a result of the undercount, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers Census Study. These staggering numbers are a powerful reminder of what is now at stake, particularly given the dire economic circumstances now faced by many states and municipalities.

Working to achieve an accurate and full Census count of African-American and other minority communities represents one of the greatest and most pressing civil rights challenges of the moment. Right now, Census forms are being delivered to every residence throughout the country. Most households will receive a form that contains 10 short questions that take a few minutes to complete. Each household should complete the form and return it using the pre-addressed postage-paid envelope that is provided with the questionnaire. If you do not receive a form, you should call the Census hotline at 1-866-872-6868. As a safeguard, a census worker may be sent to those households that do not mail the form back. It is important to respond to census workers if they visit your home, as their efforts can help ensure that we overcome the undercount problem that has plagued our communities for too long.

In addition to the recurring undercount problem, there are also some other challenges that we face today. For one, thousands of people from the Gulf Coast region remain displaced throughout the country as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is important that those impacted be counted and counted in the appropriate place . Also, many families impacted by the foreclosure crisis have been forced to leave their homes. It is especially important that we ensure that these families receive a Census form or are counted where they are living today. Special efforts must also be made to count the homeless, children and other vulnerable populations, including recent immigrants and non-citizens. And those who live in apartment complexes or public housing must be certain to report an accurate number of persons living in the home, including children and non-citizens.

And all of these challenges must be viewed against the backdrop of “prison gerrymandering” – the practice of counting people incarcerated in far away prisons as members of the communities where the prisons happen to be located, instead of counting them in the communities where they lived prior to being sent to prison. Collectively, these challenges and problems underscore the need for aggressive efforts that ensure that we are adequately represented in the 2010 Census.

In making sure our communities are properly counted, it is essential to explode the myths about the Census and to develop a culture of participation. Residents should remember that information provided on the Census form is confidential and will not be shared with landlords, mortgage holders, police or immigration officers, or any other officials. And younger residents who may be participating in the Census for the first time must understand what is at stake and should be encouraged to establish a commitment to participating now.

Here are some of the action steps that can be taken over the next several weeks to overcome the hurdles and move closer to the goal of achieving a full count.

1. Complete and return the form. The Census Bureau is now mailing forms to households all across the country. Take a few minutes to complete the form and return it right away.

2. Be accurate. It is very important that people report all persons living in the household, including children, the elderly, citizens and non-citizens alike.

3. Remember the process is confidential. The information is used solely and specifically to determine an accurate count of our communities. The information is not shared with anyone else, including law enforcement, landlords or any other official.

4. Spread the word. Encourage your neighbors, fellow church members, friends and family members to also participate in the Census. Some will be participating for the very first time; you can encourage them to quickly complete and return the form and set an example by doing the same yourself.

5. Recognize the high stakes. The Census only takes places every 10 years. Census data not only impacts how public funding is allocated, but also has huge implications for the redistricting that will occur once the Census is complete. Because entire electoral districts can be shifted or eliminated altogether as a result of an undercount, Census numbers are directly linked to political power.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that so many of our pubic policies, programs, social spending and redistricting work are tied to the population counts that will be produced by the Census Bureau. Inaccurate counts paint a distorted picture of the make-up of our communities and will lead to the misallocation of resources. Moreover, an undercount can drive disadvantaged communities into an even deeper hole depriving them of necessary resources and funding they need to get back on their feet.

In light of the nation’s still-struggling economy, this Census represents a critical moment that demands all of our attention. We must all be engaged in the effort to achieve a full and accurate count of our communities. Our democracy depends on it.

For more information on what you can do to help achieve an accurate census count in your community, visit www.countonchange2010.org