Though Madison’s planning staff have been preparing to engage residents on the 2020 Census for several months, outreach efforts are now reaching full swing as the city’s Complete Count Committee met for the first time last Thursday.
The purpose of the committee is to assist city staff develop and implement a plan to increase resident’s participation in the decennial census, focusing on reaching historically undercounted populations.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway impressed upon the committee how critical a correct census count is for the city.
“We need to make sure that the fullness of our community is represented in the census,” Rhodes-Conway said. “From a philosophical perspective, it’s important that we count everyone, but it’s also important from a financial perspective that we count everyone.”
Census data determine how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal funding is distributed for public services, like schools and roads, and in initiatives like low-income housing tax credits.
The 2020 population numbers also affect the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. Additionally, local elected leaders use census data to make policy decisions, such as where new schools or libraries are located.
“The work that we do to increase our participation in the census is absolutely critical work to the city of Madison,” Rhodes-Conway said.
In 2020, the U.S. Census will be conducted in a different environment than in prior decades. Trust in government at all levels is low, and people fear that their information will be shared or used against them, according to a Census Bureau study.
This fear was amplified as President Donald Trump’s administration attempted to ask a citizenship on the 2020 Census. In July, federal courts permanently blocked President Donald Trump’s administration from adding, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” to the census form.
The possibility of a citizenship question was found to potentially reduce responses by 8%, a rate higher than previously estimated for U.S. households with noncitizens, according to Census Bureau research from June.
The census officially begins Jan. 21, 2020 in Toksook Bay, Alaska ahead of the April 1 Census Day. However, most households can start participating around mid-March when the Census Bureau plans to send instructions to almost all homes.
This month, Census Bureau workers started canvassing in neighborhoods to make sure the bureau’s list of addresses is correct. The bureau is hiring local residents to be temporary workers, such as door knockers and outreach specialists.
Marilyn Sanders, the U.S. Census Bureau’s regional director for the area that includes Wisconsin, said Complete Count Committees are integral to reaching all members of a community, especially those who may be difficult to count.
“It is the trusted voice, the recognizable voice for that committee,” Sanders said. “A Complete Count Committee knows their community. It is trusted by their peers.”
Madison’s Complete Count Committee members expressed the importance of making sure they are reaching all sectors of the community and are sending a message that census data is protected.
The city, with a budget of $75,000 in 2019, issued a call in June to fund community partners to assist census outreach. Centro Hispano, Hmong Institute, Latino Academy of Workforce Development, Latino Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Inc., Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association and the Northside Planning Council received contracts.
Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, and Shelia Stubbs, a Dane County supervisor and state representative, noted missing voices from the group of funded partners.
“I don’t think that represents the community, and I think it’s going to be problematic,” Stubbs said.
Stubbs said there should be representatives from the faith and senior communities. Robin Sereno, housing director at the Tenant Resource Center, called out the lack of youth voices, LGBTQ organizations and groups representing people experiencing homelessness.
Protecting personal information
Juli Aulik, community relations director for UW Health, said she wants to be sure there is an “immutable firewall” between personal, identifiable census data and people who may want to obtain it.
“This is a big responsibility in a way right now that I don’t think it’s ever been in the past,” Aulik said. “I want to hear a lot more about the safeguards that are in place to protect people.”
Federal law dictates that the bureau cannot share census responses identifying people with the public or other federal agencies, including immigration authorities and law enforcement, until 72 years after the information is collected. Census Bureau employees are sworn to protect confidentiality.
Sereno echoed the concern that rhetoric at the federal level will be a barrier in reaching out to local residents.
“We can put out all the marketing we want, but unless it’s coming nationally around documentation and security, it’s going to be a pretty tough sell in this community,” Sereno said.