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How local groups are preparing to reach 'hard-to-count' populations for 2020 census
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Hector Montalvo Sanabria, who works with the Atlanta Regional Census Center, explains how the 2020 census will differ from the last demographic survey taken in 2010, as well as how local community groups can assist the census bureau in reaching “hard-to-count” populations, such as minorities, immigrants and children. - photo by Joshua Silavent

The U.S. Census is not just a tally of people, where they live, the color of their skin and how much money they earn annually.

It does those things, of course, but it’s a means to an end.

And that end is resources.

Census data is used to disburse federal and state funding for community programs.

And with the 2020 census beginning next April 1, local community groups, nonprofits and volunteers are preparing to help tally the “hard-to-count” populations in Gainesville, Hall County and Northeast Georgia to ensure what’s due is rendered.

“Data from the census and American Community Survey directly affect how more than $675 billion per year in federal and state funding are allocated to local, state and tribal governments,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “The data are also vital to other planning decisions, such as emergency preparedness and disaster recovery.”

That’s about $13 billion annually for Georgia, according to Hector Montalvo Sanabria, who works for the Atlanta Regional Census Center.

“The money follows the numbers, not necessarily the needs,” he said.

Sanabria was on hand last week for a community gathering hosted by the Newtown Florist Club, a Gainesville civil rights group, along with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church.

“The purpose is to begin the process of learning as much as we can about the census and what it is we can do locally to ensure and encourage a complete count of all of our communities,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Latino Elected Officials.

The Associated Press reports that more than 1.5 million minorities were not counted in the 2010 census. The national response rate in 2010, “defined as the percentage of questionnaires mailed back by households that received them,” according to the census bureau, was 74 percent. It was 72 percent across Georgia and 77 percent in Hall County.

Children under the age of 5 years old were the single largest demographic not counted in the last census. Historically, other “hard-to-count” populations include African-American men, homeless or transient individuals, as well as renters, Latino immigrants and youth. A census tract map, for example, shows where the lowest survey response rates were in Hall County in 2010. They include portions of East Hall, which has a large Latino demographic in the area, as well as low-income neighborhoods within the city limits of Gainesville. Meanwhile, more affluent communities in North Hall, for example, had the highest turnout rates.

The impact of an accurate census goes beyond the provisions a community may receive as a result of the tally.

2010 U.S. Census participation rates

Hall: 77%

Forsyth: 77%

Dawson: 77%

Gwinnett: 73%

Habersham: 78%

Lumpkin: 79%

Jackson: 76%

White: 76%

Banks: 78%

National: 74%

Georgia: 72%

Note: Rates are defined as the percentage of questionnaires mailed back by households that received them.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

For example, census data can influence how local school districts plan for growing or declining student enrollment. It also is key in political reapportionment, from U.S. congressional districts all the way down to city council wards.

Census data, such as population estimates, can also be critical in forecasting economic trends, Gonzalez said, which means businesses play an important role in encouraging their employees to participate in the survey.

“If we miss some populations, it’s a ripple effect not just in terms of resources, but then you may not get the businesses opening up in your communities that you need,” he added.

Last week’s community gathering educated participants about how the census works and changes for 2020, as well as how residents can get involved in “complete count committees,” which are volunteer groups that help raise awareness about the importance of participation.

“Faith-based institutions are key in a lot of census outreach efforts,” Gonzalez said.

The committees include members from the local community who have the knowledge, wherewithal and capacity to reach those hard-to-count populations.

For example, the census bureau will dedicate one night in 2020 to counting the nation’s homeless population by working and visiting churches, missions, soup kitchens and other places where they may be found and surveyed.

“We cannot do it on our own,” Montalvo Sanabria said. “If that’s a particular need here (in Hall County),” he added, that’s where complete count committees can be most useful.

Gonzalez, echoing these sentiments, said it is local leaders, businesses, nonprofits, media and community groups that know “all the nooks and crannies” where hard-to-count populations can be met on their turf.

According to Montalvo Sanabria, many of these groups, particularly minorities and immigrants, have fears about the privacy and confidentiality of the personal information they share with census takers.

But, he added, the census bureau shares only aggregate data with the public and other federal agencies — never any name-specific or personally identifying information.

Montalvo Sanabria said, for example, that anyone asking for a Social Security number is not legit, and census takers do not solicit donations for charity, ask for bank account information or discuss political affiliation.

“That is not a census worker,” he added.

The Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, said even the allocation and distribution of federal and state funding based on the most accurate census estimates can leave disparities between communities, particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

“They don’t feel the weight of federal dollars and the impact in their lives in housing and health care,” Johnson said.

Rectifying the precedence of historically undercounting minority populations of varying stripes makes for a huge mountain to climb in 2020.

“I’m really concerned,” Johnson said. “It’s like Mount Everest.”

“But that doesn’t mean it can’t be climbed,” Gonzalez responded.

The first U.S. census took place in 1790, with about 3.9 million individuals counted.

In the ensuing 230 years, more detailed and nuanced information was collected through the annual American Community Survey, which catalogs things like how many people in a county have health insurance, receive public assistance or do not have their own transportation in addition to socio-economic, race, education level and other demographic information.

There are big changes ahead, however, for how the 2020 census will be conducted differently than the 2010 census.

For example, one aspect of the 2020 census remains undetermined.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a ruling on whether a question asking about an individual’s citizenship status can be added to the census next year.

Lower courts have ruled against the Trump administration’s intention to add the question, which was last asked, in a different manner, in the 1950 census.   

Additionally, a postcard, rather than the traditional paper survey, will be mailed in March 2020 to each residence informing households they can answer the census online or through an 800-telephone number, with the survey available in 12 languages.

Individuals who prefer a paper survey must personally request the mailer.

Follow-ups have been pared down significantly from 2010.

“In the 2010 census, the bureau attempted door knocks to get a response 13 times,” Gonzalez said, adding that it is a very labor intensive activity.

In 2020, though, just three home follow-ups will be made, and if no response is given after those attempts conclude, surveyors will have to make estimates based on responses from neighboring residences and households — similar to how homes in a single subdivision are comparably priced to sell on the market.

“That’s particularly concerning for hard-to-count populations,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why we have our work cut out for us to make sure every person is counted.”