In the One State that Tested the Census, Concerns About Reaching Hard-to-Count Residents

In this Aug. 22, 2019, photo, people walk through New York's Times Square. With just a few months left before America starts taking its biggest-ever self-portrait, the U.S. Census Bureau is grappling with a host of concerns about the headcount.

In this Aug. 22, 2019, photo, people walk through New York's Times Square. With just a few months left before America starts taking its biggest-ever self-portrait, the U.S. Census Bureau is grappling with a host of concerns about the headcount. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

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The census deployed the only end-to-end test for the 2020 census in Rhode Island. But it didn’t assess efforts to reach communities of people who could be hesitant to participate, something local leaders are now trying to figure out.

Oscar Mejias doesn’t want Latinos to be fearful of participating in the 2020 census.

But even after sitting down to explain the process and the goal of the decennial survey to residents in Rhode Island, where he lives, he’s worried it won’t be enough. U.S. residents will not be asked whether or not they are citizens on the 2020 questionnaire, but Mejias, president of the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that hasn’t alleviated profound distrust among immigrant communities about the federal government’s motivations.

“People are afraid and it is necessary to talk to them and explain more than one time to make them be confident that the information won’t be shared and there is not a way to identify if they are a legal or not legal resident of the country,” said Mejias, one of dozens of individuals the state has tapped as grassroots community organizers to coax residents to participate.

As city and state leaders prepare for the 2020 census, which kicks off in April, the focus is on ensuring all residents participate, given estimates that as many as 4 million people are at risk of being missed. Leaders across the country are fearful a Census Bureau trying out new methods—for the first time, for example, the focus will be on getting as many people as possible to respond online—could fail to count many people who are hesitant to participate.

In theory, Rhode Island political and community leaders should have a better idea of how the census will play out in their state, as the Census Bureau in 2018 conducted its only dress rehearsal for 2020 in Providence County. But on the question of whether the census can successfully reach distrustful immigrant communities, or others that have proved hard to count in the past, the Providence test won’t provide an answer.

“They did not test their outreach in the Providence situation. That would have been helpful to get a little more information about what they did and how it was received,” said William O’Hare, a demographer and longtime census expert.

The dress rehearsal, or end-to-end, tests traditionally conducted by the bureau provides the federal government with information to assess both new technology and strategies to count residents. In the past, end-to-end tests were used to evaluate communications and outreach, as well as providing insight into the bureau’s ability to reach hard-to-count populations like young children, renters, minorities and immigrant communities, O’Hare said. 

A Census spokesman acknowledged that the agency’s trial run last year didn’t include an advertising campaign or assessment of its outreach efforts due to budget constraints.

“We weren’t really testing our ability to reach specific audiences,” the spokesman said.“It was testing our operations and making sure everything was going to run smoothly.”

The self-response rate for the end-to-end test conducted in Providence was 52.3%, higher than expected given the lack of marketing and outreach around the test, the census spokesman said.

The bureau will however fund an outreach and communications campaign for the full 2020 count that will target both English and non-English speakers.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House oversight subcommittee for the census who now works as a consultant on census issues, agreed with O’Hare that it would have been useful to get feedback on the communications campaign.

“Any census operation and activity that hasn’t been fully vetted through testing and research, increases the risk of something going wrong or not going as well as it needs to during the census,” Lowenthal said. “In this case, that could mean that hard-to-count populations might be undercounted and therefore not allotted federal dollars in future disbursements.”

The census is conducted once every decade and has implications for congressional representation and the flow of billions of federal dollars to states. An undercount of residents could reduce the amount of federal funding that a local community receives.

Much of the discussion about the census has been focused on whether the Trump administration will include a question about citizenship on the 2020 survey.  The Supreme Court in July rejected the Trump administration’s rationale for the question’s inclusion, and authorities eventually opted not to include it on the forms.

State attorneys general and advocacy groups had warned that inclusion of the question would deter residents of immigrant-heavy communities from responding. But the Census Bureau released its own preliminary findings last month that showed U.S. residents were not significantly deterred from completing census questionnaires when the forms contained the question.

In Rhode Island, approximately 255,000 people, or 24% of the population, live in hard-to-count communities, according to the state’s complete count committee plan. The Census Bureau’s results from Providence showed a wide gap in response rates between white and non-white residents. Whites had the highest self-response rate, with 68% completing census surveys. The response rate for blacks was 38% and for Hispanics was 43%.

About 16% of Rhode Island’s population is Hispanic and 8% is black, according to Census estimates.

Like many states and some local governments, Rhode Island will spend money to bolster Census Bureau efforts to reach people. Rhode Island reported collecting $1.2 million through public and private contributions through June to fund census operations in the state, with about $335,000 slated for an education campaign targeting hard-to-count populations, according to the state’s complete count committee report.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said his city and associated community partners will approach the census like a political campaign—complete with yard signs, stickers, and advertisements. Elorza said the city has also made sure post offices, libraries and recreation centers have kiosks where residents can complete census forms.

“That’s where the campaign aspect of this comes in,” he said. “If everyone is singing the same tune and people hear it often enough, it registers and penetrates in someone’s mind.”

Elorza said he is counting on partnerships with community organizations to identify particular neighborhoods that may require additional outreach.

“There are hard-to-reach communities, they are particularly hard to reach for governments. But it doesn’t have to be us who reaches them,” he said, adding that it may be more beneficial for residents to receive information about the census from trusted community groups.

As part of his grassroots efforts to reach the Latino community in Rhode Island, Mejias has sought out a variety of ways to connect with business owners, their friends and families in order to educate them about the census. At previous chamber meetings, he’s invited census representatives who speak Spanish to talk directly to the Latino community. An upcoming chamber breakfast event in December, expected to draw more than 200 people, will be another opportunity for outreach.

When he talks to Latino residents about the census, Mejias said he tries to emphasize that being counted is about more than the federal dollars or even congressional representation.

“It’s more to show them that it’s really important not to be invisible,” he said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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