Amid concerns about potential citizenship question, area leaders make case for how and why the Census counts

By Liesl Graber, contributor

For every member of the community who doesn’t participate in the upcoming census, Harrisonburg could miss out on $2,000 in federal funding.

That’s the message Census Bureau officials are taking across the country, including to Harrisonburg. Census representatives met with community members last Monday for roundtable discussion in the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center hosted by the Shenandoah Regional Complete Count Commission

And at this Tuesday’s city council meeting, Kathy O’Connell, partnership specialist with the regional census center based in Philadelphia, will present issues surrounding the upcoming census in Harrisonburg, including the programs that get federal funding based on population numbers from each census.

Mandated by the United States Constitution, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the entire population of the United States and records where each person usually lives by the deadline of April 1, 2020. The Census Bureau will then compile all data collected through the survey and submit a formal report to the U.S. president by December 31, 2020.

Complete and accurate counting is critical for ensuring fair representation in Congress and the Virginia General Assembly, said Jonathan Alger, JMU’s president, who represented the Virginia Complete Count Commission at last week’s meeting. For instance, the count is used to determine allocation of $645 billion in federal aid for community programs like schools, hospitals, transportation and public works across the country.

In an effort to ensure an accurate count, Governor Ralph Northam issued an executive order on December 18, 2018, to establish the Virginia Complete Count Commission with the mission to improve participation of all Virginians in the upcoming census.

“The census is not just about counting heads,” Alger said. The data collected by the census is used for community improvement, and that’s more important than a head-count, he said.

Last week’s event, which was pegged to National Census Awareness Day, was the first of many aimed at achieving Northam’s goal. To share expertise on the subject, about 20 community members participated in a question-and-answer session with National Program Manager for the Census Bureau Cathy Hartz, who explored issues of reaching traditionally undercounted individuals, including people who live in the United States without legal documentation.

Harrisonburg’s share

The government has $675 billion to allocate over 10 years following the census, and most federal programs use census data to portion out the funding. These funds help pay for community necessities like roadways, schools, emergency equipment and public transportation.

For every person not counted, Alger suggested, communities could miss out on an estimated $2,000 per uncounted person in federal funding — a figure Hartz confirmed.

Ande Banks, the city’s deputy city manager, said Harrisonburg receives millions of dollars in federal funding each year, “all of which in some way fashion or form is impacted by accurate census data,” he told The Citizen in an interview. Most of the money passes through the Virginia Department of Transportation, so tracing the money back to the allotted $675 billion census budget is difficult to do.

A lot of the federal funding Harrisonburg receives filters into the school system, Banks said.

Many challenges face the 2020 Census, including the possibility that the survey will include a question on citizenship, a matter which the U.S. Supreme Court is fast-tracking and expects to make a ruling before the census forms are printed in June.

“Why should immigrants trust the federal government with this question?” Mary Gayne of Harrisonburg asked Hartz from the audience, the first of many pointed questions Gayne posed regarding immigrants’ fears about the upcoming count.

“The goal is to count everyone once, and only once, in the right place—in the places that support them,” Hartz said. The data collection system runs algorithms to prevent double counting. Including names on surveys also contributes to the single-counting effort, though names are “scrubbed off” as soon as the data is collected.

Can it get beyond the ‘distrust?’

The idea of including names with the data has some people worried, mainly for recent undocumented immigrants, Gayne said.

Hartz insisted the “name scrubbing” will happen and that the information is not shared with any organization outside of the Census Bureau.

“Distrust — it’s here,” Hartz said.

She said her hope is that by hearing it from an individual who works in the Census Bureau, people will have more trust in the census and that knowledge can spread at the grassroots level.

“You just have to believe me. The names come off. We’re just interested in the data,” she said. “It’s about the ‘how many’ than the ‘who.’”

Gayne wasn’t convinced. She said “Dreamers” — those who were brought to the United States as children by family members emigrating from other places — felt betrayed by the federal government when they were promised a path to citizenship, but Congress ultimately failed to find agreement on it last year.

“Similar promises were made to the Dreamers. How strong of a promise are we making when we tell our friends to participate in the census?” Gayne said.

The 2020 Census is shaping up to be the most difficult census Hartz said she has ever seen for reasons like this one.

Hartz encouraged everyone to be counted in the upcoming census, regardless of citizenship, though Hartz said she wouldn’t blame recent immigrants for skipping the citizenship question and said there is no serious legal trouble awaiting those who leave the question unanswered.

“It’s law-mandated, yes, but have we arrested anybody for it? No,” she said.

Accurate data is important for community improvement, and the quality of data weakens for every question left unanswered, Hartz said. She encouraged people to think about civic engagement and how all responses and nonresponses directly impact the Harrisonburg community.

“You live here, citizen or not. You drive on these roads. You send your children to these schools,” Hartz said. “That should be the motivating factor for you, more than threats we don’t follow through with anyway.”

Alternative ways to be counted? 

The changes to the 2020 Census could make accurate counting of low-income households, immigrants and young children even more difficult — as well as a new group among the traditionally undercounted: those without internet access.

Because of budget cuts, for the first time, the 2020 census can be submitted in an online self-response format along with the more traditional routes such as over the phone and mail-in surveys.

Later this year, the Census Bureau will administer a “2019 Test” sample including 450,000 housing units, to test the citizenship question and its effect on response rates, as well as to gauge how much staffing will be necessary to work with the new online system.

To pull off the massive counting exercise, the census will generate 500,000 new jobs in the next year, including entry-level to managerial positions that pay between $13 and $30 hourly. Qualifications include passing a drug test, being over the age of 18, passing an English literacy test and having a legal permit to work in the US.

So far, the Census Bureau has reached nearly half its goal with 230,000 applicants, a number about which Hartz feels “cautiously optimistic.”

The task is colossal, she said, but the work feels important.

“We’re really counting on you,” Hartz said.

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