A Key in Census Outreach: Finding Trusted People to Pitch Participation


“We are making some progress, as you well know, but certainly not progress enough,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

WASHINGTON — Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza can offer some good news on the dry run for the 2020 Census his Rhode Island city took part in earlier this year: Census Bureau staff were helpfully engaged with local officials, community partners stepped up and initial results showed a good response rate.

But Elorza said he doesn’t want to suggest that all is completely well, as there are still a lot of unknowns. While the city knows that more than half of households responded to the test on their own—an amount higher than the Census Bureau’s goal—he hasn’t been told what happened with harder-to-reach residents. Those are the people who don’t hop online to fill out the Census or drop it in the mail, but need to be contacted by canvassers going door to door.

“The initial results were good. But I don’t want to give any false sense of hope because we don’t have the results for the rest of it, the second and third phases,” Elorza told Route Fifty Thursday after appearing on a panel at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual winter meeting in the nation’s capital.  

In response to an email, a spokesperson with the Census Bureau said the results for the Providence County test, which includes the city of Providence and suburban areas, aren’t ready yet and will be available in the coming months.

The agency indicated on the bureau's website that information releases from their “enumeration” of the test are expected between January and March. But the agency is one of many federal departments affected by the partial government shutdown, so it is unclear if that timeframe is still accurate. Officials have said Census preparation is still going on while the Commerce Department is closed.

For city leaders attending the conference panel on census preparations, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh had one message: you are already behind if you haven’t recruited a Complete Count Committee, along with holding events and launching media campaigns. Positive outreach  is particularly important as the census has become embroiled in controversy with the Trump administration’s push to include a question asking respondents about their citizenship status.

“We are making some progress, as you well know, but certainly not progress enough,” said Pugh, who chairs the conference’s census task force. “We should be using our libraries, our schools and making sure this will be accessible.”

One key is not just sending city leaders into communities that may be reluctant to participate, but finding people who are trusted to spread the message, Pugh said.

“We are engaging leaders in communities that are undercounted or expected to be undercounted, especially in Latino and African-American communities,” she explained.

For the first time in 2020, people will be able to fill out their census forms online, which Pugh said makes finding places for people to get on computers a priority. One unexpected place she suggested: laundromats.

The count of every person in the U.S. occurs once a decade. The data is used in determining how federal money is spent, as well as in political representation, such as how House districts are apportioned to each state.

Historically, members of minority communities, including both black and Latino residents, have been undercounted by the census. For the 2020 count, advocates are particularly worried about families where one or more members are undocumented declining to participate, given the Trump administration’s focus on immigration enforcement.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant who previously served as a staff director on the House census oversight committee, told mayors that now is the time to step up “get out the count” activities, saying there are materials that could be tapped on censuscounts.org.

“This is not something you can stand up at the last minute,” she said.

The “peak” census operations are a year away, which means that the Census Bureau now is opening up local offices and hiring thousands of workers, Lowenthal said. Congress has put about $600 million additional dollars for the census into the appropriations bill for the Commerce Department, which is expected to move once President Trump and Congress agree to reopen the federal government.

That money will fund questionnaire assistance centers, which were not in the bureau’s original plan, to help people fill out their census forms, she said. Congress specified that the funds had to be used for that purpose, as well as staff for partnership programs and expanding targeted communications.

The Census Bureau, however, will not fund local government census operations, Lowenthal said. For that kind of help, she said cities and others should look to local charities, foundations and community businesses.

Vanita Gupta, a former Justice Department official during the Obama administration who now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, explained a recent decision by a New York-based federal judge that for the time being means the Trump administration is blocked from asking respondents about whether they are citizens. City and state leaders, as well as activists groups, have argued reinstating this question, which hasn’t been used for decades, will result in immigrants being reluctant to participate, resulting in undercounting.

But Gupta said the Justice Department has already asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. “While this plays out, I would caution us all to not... rest comfortably about what happens. We don’t know what the U.S. Supreme Court will do,” she said.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told panel members that while she is trying to be active to ensure a good count for Grand Rapids, Michigan, when people raise issues about fears of their census information being shared with immigration authorities, they don’t get great responses from Census Bureau staff.

Lowenthal said the staff aren’t in a position to answer that question. However, there are legal protections that bar the sharing of individuals’ census information, Gupta said, which mayors and community groups need to help explain to citizens to help make them feel more comfortable.  

“I know this is a real problem,” Gupta said. “We can’t look to the bureau to provide the answers.”

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