As concerns over privacy and misinformation mount, federal and state officials are preparing for the 2020 Census by using nonprofits to collect an accurate count of the nation’s residents.
The results of the Census are used to determine how many seats each state holds in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, effectively determining the state’s power and influence in Washington, D.C. As well, getting an accurate count could also mean more funds for programs that affect many Michigan residents.
“We’re focused on raising awareness of how the Census is critical to our state as it relates to our voice in Washington, D.C. with congressional seats as well as critical funding that supports a wide array of programs core to people in Michigan,” Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan’s statewide Census director, told MiBiz.
“Many folks don’t understand that this money is our tax dollars that we’re already paying the federal government,” said Ebersole Singh, who was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019 to lead the state’s Complete Count Committee. “They come back to the states to help support Medicaid, Medicare, transit and highway planning, nutrition programs for seniors and school lunch programs for kids. It’s really, really fundamental and important to our state.”
In the last Census in 2010, 74 percent of U.S. households filled out and mailed back their Census questionnaire, matching the final mail participation rate achieved in the 2000 Census. Households that did not mail back the form were visited in person by Census takers.
At 78 percent, Michigan’s participation rate was slightly higher than the national average.
Starting in mid-March, nearly every household in the country will be asked to answer the nine-question 2020 Census. Residents can respond online — for the first time — as well as by phone or mail.
However, concerns are mounting over just how responsive residents will be to the 2020 count.
In a survey leading up to the 2010 census, 85 percent of people said they were planning to fill out the form. In a similar survey conducted recently, the percentage of people likely to respond to the Census dropped to 67 percent, according to Ebersole Singh.
Michigan faces many of the same challenges as other states. However, the lack of broadband internet access and the resulting “digital divide” is a larger barrier in Michigan than elsewhere, Ebersole Singh said. In addition, pockets of people have been historically undercounted, including young people and children, immigrants, people of color and people living below the federal poverty line.
“Nonprofits are very well positioned to help and (provide) outreach in those communities,” she said.
For the past three years, the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) has been raising funds and building a framework for a community-centered, coordinated effort to encourage participation in the 2020 Census among people who are at significant risk of being undercounted.
“There is so much at stake for Michigan to get a good count in the Census, which is why the nonprofit sector and philanthropy decided to invest in this campaign to mobilize nonprofits so that we can get a fair and accurate count,” Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer at MNA, told MiBiz.
Missing Census information leads to inequality in political power, government funding and private-sector investment for communities that may already be underrepresented, according to the MNA. In addition, local charitable organizations will surely be asked to make up for any shortfall if there is a corresponding decrease in government funding allocations, driving up the already high demand for assistance, Gustafson said.
The federal government gave Michigan $17.7 billion to distribute to initiatives around the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
MNA has designated 13 nonprofits — mostly community foundations and United Ways — to act as “Census Hubs” to determine outreach efforts for each region. Those hubs will be granting funds and training local nonprofits, interacting with local leaders and government and tracking results.
“All of these 13 hubs are putting regional campaigns in place because you can imagine that what may be a good campaign up in the U.P. might look a lot different than what a campaign might look like in Flint or Grand Rapids,” Gustafson said.
A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed five barriers that might prevent people from participating in the Census: concerns about data privacy and confidentiality, fear of repercussions, distrust in all levels of government, feeling that it doesn’t matter if each person is counted, and a belief that there is no personal benefit to completing it.
However, funding for public services and nonprofit programs was a top motivator across all groups surveyed, even though less than half of respondents knew that the Census is used to determine community funding.
Nonprofit organizations and community groups are ideally suited for awareness and education campaigns because they have well-established relationships with historically hard-to-count populations and are generally regarded with a high level of trust, according to Bob McKown, senior director of community impact at Heart of West Michigan United Way.
“Nonprofits tend to be a trusted voice,” McKown said. “If someone receives the information from the nonprofit about why it’s relevant to them and that Census information is confidential, folks value that.”
Heart of West Michigan United Way, which serves Kent County, is acting as the Census Hub for the region. In 2019, the organization granted funds to 17 diverse nonprofit organizations to help eliminate disparities from historically underserved and underrepresented groups.
“The grants provide some resources for some nonprofits that are reaching out to the hard-to-count populations to share information about the Census, to participate in events and distribute information about the Census, and to answer questions about the Census,” McKown said. “Many of them are also setting up to provide a place for folks that do not have access to a computer to go login and complete their Census form.”
The grants range from $5,000 to $20,000 for a total of $216,500. One of the goals for Heart of West Michigan United Way was to reach a wide variety of historically undercounted populations, including people of color, low-income households, older adults, LGBTQ community members, young children, people with limited English-language knowledge, people experiencing homelessness, and immigrants.
“The trust between nonprofits in their neighborhoods and the people they serve we think will increase the participation,” McKown said. “Many people are not satisfied with government. Completing or not completing the Census survey does not change that, but not completing does make it likely that Michigan will have less revenue to provide services to people. It’s important for folks to know it makes a difference.”
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