KENMORE — Local officials and community leaders are preparing an all-out push to urge residents to respond to the 2020 Census, even as they say their federal counterparts, who are responsible for the constitutionally mandated count, are understaffed and less helpful than in years past.
Starting March 12, households across the country will start getting postcards in the mail asking them to participate in the Census, the once-every-10 years count that determines how many members of Congress each state gets and how billions of dollars in federal funding are divvied up.
Washington gets around $17 billion a year from federal programs that use the Census to determine where funding should go. Everything from Medicaid to Pell Grants to community health centers to housing assistance to highway and transit money depends on the Census to help determine how much is allocated.
For the first time this year, everyone will be asked to respond to Census questions online, although you will still be able to respond by mail or by phone.
And local officials, who have been preparing for over a year to try to ensure every community in the state is accurately counted, say their federal counterparts running the Census are understaffed, under-resourced and less able to answer questions than in the past. The Census has long been known for the promotional materials it hands out to spread the message — Census pens, Census flyers, Census water bottles and other Census tchotchkes — and while it is still producing items, this year it directed local officials to Amazon to buy Census-branded merch.
The Census Bureau has opened far fewer assistance centers this year, said former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the chair of the Washington State Complete Count Committee. As U.S. Commerce secretary in the Obama administration, Locke oversaw the entire 2010 Census.
“There are significantly fewer people hired to staff these Census centers that serve as outreach and resources to Seattle, King County, the state of Washington,” Locke said.
Toby Nelson, a Census spokesman, disputed that the bureau is understaffed or underfunded.
This year’s advertising budget is about $40 million more, after accounting for inflation, than in 2010, Nelson said. He also said “standing procedures” are built into the Census to address epidemics and pandemics and they are working to incorporate guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
But there are fewer assistance centers. In 2010, Nelson said, there were more than 23,500 staffed questionnaire assistance centers nationwide, but more than 9,000 didn’t collect any data. This year, he said, they’ll be using “mobile” assistance centers, deploying staff to events and locations where they’re seeing low response rates, in real time.
Locke’s not the only one who said dealing with the bureau was more difficult this year.
“2010 versus 2020 is a lot different, and it’s been a struggle,” said Marc Baldwin, assistant director for the Washington Office of Financial Management, which is overseeing the state’s efforts. His office cited reports that the Census was much slower to ramp up funding in advance of the count than in past census years.
Kevin Klingbeil, a former Census Bureau manager who’s now a private consultant working on census issues, described struggling to get answers on how a homelessness-services event at the CenturyLink Field Events Center — that will draw thousands on April 1, the day the Census Bureau uses for official counting purposes — could be used to help count the homeless population.
“You go to try to ask questions as a community-based organization or coalition who’s trying to support the effort and there’s just not enough resources available to even answer your question,” Klingbeil said.
And while the Census is overwhelmingly conducted by career employees who have served under presidents of both parties, local officials say the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies have cast a pall over the count, increasing mistrust among the very communities that have historically been most difficult to count.
In particular, Locke pointed to Trump’s push to add a citizenship question to the Census, which the Census Bureau itself said would have significantly decreased immigrant response rates. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question and it will not appear on the Census form.
“It’s cast a kind of a cloud over the entire 2020 Census,” Locke said. “There’s a lot of mistrust.”
The Census Bureau is trying to counter such feelings, despite the Commerce Department’s earlier push for the question.
The agency is buying millions of dollars worth of digital ads to try to boost trust in their work. Google “Census citizenship,” or any related term, and the first result that pops up is an ad from the bureau with the headline “No Citizenship Question,” which leads to a page entitled “Fighting 2020 Census Rumors.”
But a majority of the country still thinks the Census will ask about citizenship, according to a survey last month from Pew Research Center, while only about 1 in 5 people know you can respond online.
Getting the job done
In 2010, 76% of Washingtonians responded to the Census questionnaire, slightly above the national average of 74%. Response rates ranged from 81% in Clallam County to just 47% in San Juan County, with King County punching in at 77%.
Those who do not respond to the first postcard are gently hassled. There will be more letters in the mail. For those who haven’t responded by May 1, the Census Bureau will start sending counters door-to-door to get your response.
It takes a lot of people to count more than 325 million people. The bureau will hire about 500,000 workers, including about 10,000 in Washington, in “the largest peacetime labor mobilization in the United States,” and, briefly, become the third largest nonmilitary employer in the country, Nelson said.
The state is spending $15 million, authorized by the Legislature in last year’s budget, to reach “the state’s hardest to count residents.” King County, Seattle and the Seattle Foundation are spending a little over $1 million on a Regional Census Fund, for similar purposes.
That money is mostly going to community groups that have close ties with traditionally hard-to-count groups — including people with low incomes, people of color, foreign-language speakers and immigrants — and work to persuade them to respond to the Census.
“Trusted messengers are the key to get people filling out the Census,” Baldwin said. “The level of distrust in government has increased, response rates were already sort of declining, living arrangements are more complicated.”
In Seattle, every community center and library will have staff ready to answer questions about the Census. All Seattle public libraries, and King and Snohomish County public libraries, will also have computers available to fill out the Census, even for people without library cards.
Outreach and swag
State and local money is going to groups like the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC), which helps local immigrants access social services.
It has set up questionnaire assistance centers with computers where people can get help filling out the Census. It’s made promotional videos in Chinese and Russian and promoted the Census at Lunar New Year celebrations. It’s printed out customizable promotional material, using a template set-up by King County and non-profit partners. The template allows groups to print posters or flyers in 11 languages with different pictures and messages to suit different communities.
Michael Itti, director of the CISC, said the online option could make the process harder for older people and it’s always difficult to reach people who don’t speak English.
“We need to make sure we have staff available to help them understand the Census,” Itti said. “The challenge is connecting something that people fill out once every 10 years, to help people understand how vital this is.”
Michelle Merriweather, CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said this year has been more challenging than the 2010 Census because of confusion and uncertainty coming from Washington, D.C.
To help ensure a full count of the local Black population, the Urban League is organizing a Census march, a Census party and is trying to reach people where they are, in churches, community centers, barber shops and beauty salons, Merriweather said.
“The best form of resistance is to be counted,” Merriweather said.
Merriweather and several other local officials working on the Census all mentioned one other area where they’ve noticed a big difference than in years past: promotional Census knickknacks.
“Ten years ago, all of the posters, all of the information,” she said, “All of that was provided. Now we have to do that on our own.”
“They were the kings and queens of swag,” said Elsa Batres-Boni, a Census strategic adviser for the city of Seattle. “They used to have people out at every community event with tote bags and things, ‘the Census is coming,’ because you have to have this in people’s minds.”
Nelson said their promotional work is guided by extensive research and that while they’re still sending out some merchandise, a “significant portion” of their outreach will be through ads on digital media.
In October, the Census Bureau sent an email to city Census leaders: “Dear Lead,” it read. “The OFFICIAL 2020 Census products are now available on Amazon.com. Here is the link to locate them.”