Historically, not all groups have been counted equally by the United States Census.
The survey of everyone living in the country that occurs once every 10 years has a record of undercounting certain communities — people of color, foreign-born residents, low-income households, renters, rural residents, young children and those with limited English proficiency.
Nationwide, the 2010 census undercounted renters by 1.1 percent and children younger than 5 by 5 percent, according to estimates made later. It also over-counted the non-Hispanic white population by 0.8 percent, undercounted 2.1 percent of the black population, and undercounted American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations by 4.9 percent.
As local leaders look toward the 2020 census, getting accurate counts will depend on building trust within those communities.
“I think there are tribal members who don’t trust the government process or just don’t trust the government,” said Jerry Iyall, a councilman with the Cowlitz Tribe.
In Clark County, some of the neighborhoods with the lowest response rates for the 2010 census were also the most racially diverse. Leaders in a regional census group, the Clark County Complete Count Committee, are working to boost participation in some of the most at-risk areas. Nonresponse rates are expected to hit 20 percent or even 30 percent in some census tracts, with the poorest representation in Fruit Valley, along the Fourth Plain corridor and a cluster of tracts just east of Interstate 205.
The Noble Foundation is working on opening a technical assistance center along Fourth Plain to support people who have questions or need help filling out the census form.
“Having trusted messengers in the neighborhoods is paramount to get the complete count because if we don’t, then this neighborhood, this community, misses out,” said Virginia Prioleau, who’s helping in that effort.
Additionally, the Southwest Washington Census Coalition is spending money on developing activities, content and messaging to engage historically undercounted communities. The coalition worked with a culturally specific graphic artist to design an “Every Shade Counts” logo and T-shirts to raise awareness of the 2020 census.
The funding also helped pay for two engagement coordinators; one works specifically with the local NAACP and black churches while the other coordinator works with Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities. Both are meant to provide awareness, education and resources for these communities.
Encouraging participation in the census requires active outreach to historically undercounted groups, said Lexi Bongiorno, president of Southwest Washington Citizens United for Change.
“We’re now trying to educate and tell them that it’s OK to be involved with places that have historically caused them harm,” Bongiorno said.
Council for the Homeless is also encouraging homeless service providers to educate their clients about the census. Laura Ellsworth, strategic partnerships manager at the nonprofit, acknowledged it’s a hard sell as homeless communities have already been let down by government systems. Still, counting them is important.
“They live here just like the rest of us. Whether or not they live under a roof is irrelevant,” Ellsworth said.
Several groups are concerned about getting an accurate count of seniors and disabled people, said David Kelly, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington. People should make sure their loved ones are counted. Kelly said his agency is reaching out to its 8,000 isolated clients.
“But that doesn’t cover everyone, of course,” he said.
Citizenship not questioned
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked efforts by the Trump administration to include a question inquiring about citizenship.
The ruling concluded a yearlong battle with the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau. Trump appointees had argued that the question was needed to obtain a more accurate count of U.S. citizens. But those in opposition argued that the question was designed with partisan goals in mind, because asking about citizenship would undoubtedly deter immigrants from filling out their census form. Hispanic immigrants tend to lean Democratic.
Opponents said reducing Hispanic immigrant participation in the census would mean undercounting the population, undermining political representation and reducing allocation of public funds in Hispanic-heavy communities.
Nelson confirmed in February: “There will be no citizenship question on the census.”
But some worry that despite those assurances, just having the conversation surrounding the citizenship question could keep immigrants from responding.
“The administration wanting the question on the form certainly was a detriment to getting accurate counts,” said Hector Hinojosa, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ Southwest Washington chapter. He added that the Census Bureau has never in its history shared personal information of respondents with any other governmental entity.
“So that’s what they’re trying to reassure folks,” Hinojosa said.
Diana Avalos-Leos, who founded the Clark County Latino Youth Conference, said that youth in communities of color can also serve as cultural brokers — trusted messengers for their families, encouraging them to break down any suspicion that might linger.
“They can be that voice of reason for their own families who are still a little bit cautious about participating,” Avalos-Leos said.