The deadline for completing the 2020 U.S. Census is Sept. 30, and Second District U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen hosted an Aug. 20 panel discussion via Zoom to remind people why it’s critical to respond to it.
The Zoom meeting included Toby Nelson from the Census Bureau, Snohomish County Community Relations Manager Vanessa Gutierrez, and Ben Young who serves as a director of marketing and grants for the local Communities of Color Coalition.
Larsen spoke to the importance of gathering census data from everyone living in the U.S. and emphasized that consistent with past practices, the census doesn’t include a question concerning the citizenship status of respondents.
“Responding to the census is vital to the well-being of the future of our state and accurate census data informs how public funds will be allocated into our communities to support things like hospitals, emergency services, our schools, the kind of funding that goes to roads, bridges, highways and transit systems,” Larsen said. He noted that besides their influence on public tax dollars, accurate census figures are also important for economic growth because small businesses also use that data when developing their marketing plans.
He said that people in the state are doing their part by responding to the census, but efforts are ongoing and, “there is more work to be done.” Self-response rates by mail, online or phone for residents in his Second Congressional District are “doing pretty well,” with over 70 percent of households so far having completed the questionnaire, which already exceeds the rate from 2010, Larsen said. He urges people that haven’t already done so to self-complete their census response, saying it is the fastest and easiest way.
Census employees are currently going door-to-door to follow-up with households that haven’t already submitted their responses. The census completion deadline is Sept. 30, but Larsen said he is calling on the federal government to extend that date, and “fighting to make sure that there is enough time as well to make sure that we are counting everyone living here including historically undercounted populations.”
Nelson from the Census Bureau said that Washington state currently has the third best response rate in the nation and is very close to overtaking Wisconsin for second place. He felt this shows the level of civic engagement among residents and the potential impact locally. “It not only decides how seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned, but more than $675 billion per year flows to states, localities and municipalities based on census head count data,” he said.
According to Nelson, there are 5,000 census enumerators taking part in the door-to-door campaign to complete the data gathering process for households that haven’t responded. They are utilizing social distancing training and best practices, developed in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include the use of face coverings and hand sanitizer, and a rule prohibiting enumerators from entering any residences if they are invited inside.
Other adjustments to outreach measures include increasing the bureau’s advertising efforts and mailings in languages other than English, paying particular attention to “historically undercounted communities,” he said.
Gutierrez said that her role with Snohomish County has focused on “community members leading the (census) effort,” to help provide the best outreach strategies and also mitigate concerns people may have due to government distrust or political rhetoric nationally. Efforts included a Complete Count Committee and field work to educate and inform people about the resources available to assist members of historically undercounted communities access funds.
Young from the Communities of Color Coalition said the county’s efforts to contact those hardest to reach, including people of color, has been important. “The community supported us, and we supported the community,” he said. “We went out with the understanding that we wanted to go where the community was, as opposed to having the community come to us.”
The organization has helped develop videos about the census in many different foreign languages for local dissemination. Young said that despite their efforts and the current self-response rates, he is still not satisfied and would like the rate to be much higher before the census count is completed.
Gutierrez said that an accurate count is important for the county because “data is ingrained in everything that we do. We need data to make every single decision in the county.” It helps to guide the overall comprehensive plan that is used to make determinations about local services and projects provided by the county across a wide range of topics including housing, parks, the environment, land use and transportation.
“That pretty much determines for a period of time how the county is going to behave,” Gutierrez said. In 2024, the county will look at this year’s census data and examine changes in demographics, employment, growth and land use to make decisions that will affect the distribution of funds under its comprehensive plan.
Census data can also affect planning for health services. “Right now, with COVID-19 we know the importance of having resources to address this kind of public health emergency,” she said.
Young said that an accurate count can help, “overlooked communities,” and makes it less likely “that communities of color are going to overlooked.” He said that, in turn, can then affect “how government governs.”
Larsen said that as a congressman, previous census data has “opened my eyes” to changes in the demographics for ethnicity among communities in his district. This in turn has helped him as an elected official with identifying the needs of those people he represents.
Both Larsen and Nelson highlighted that the information collected in 10 basic questions for the census is not personally identifying on an individual level. “All census data on a personal level is completely anonymized, we do not share it with any other government agencies including law enforcement or intelligence agencies,” Nelson said. “We will not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for personal level data and in fact there is no court of law in the United State that can subpoena individual, personal level census data records.”
The county has resources, including internet and Wi-Fi availability at libraries, to help those who may have difficulty in responding, and Gutierrez said she feels that the census is an example of providing everyone with an equal opportunity. “This effort is even larger than voting, because remember that voting is limited to U.S. citizens, so this is your opportunity to make a change and to make an effect on politics, distribution of funds, everything,” she said.
Larsen and all those involved on the panel implored any people who haven’t already completed the government questionnaire to do so.
The U.S. Constitution mandates a census of the population every 10 years. The goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone who lives in the United States on April 1, 2020 (Census Day). Census statistics are used to determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and informs how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated by state, local and federal lawmakers annually for the next 10 years. For more information, visit 2020census.gov.
The census can be filled out online, by phone at 844-330-2020, or returning by mail the paper questionnaire that was sent out to all households in March; for those who don’t still have that mailing, another one will be sent out shortly.
— By Nathan Blackwell