Figuring Out Exactly Where Hard-to-Count People Live

Noelle Fries, 6, left, and Galen Biel, 6, both of Minneapolis, attend a rally at the Minnesota Capitol on April 1, 2019, to kick off a year-long drive to try to ensure that all Minnesota residents are counted in the 2020 census.

Noelle Fries, 6, left, and Galen Biel, 6, both of Minneapolis, attend a rally at the Minnesota Capitol on April 1, 2019, to kick off a year-long drive to try to ensure that all Minnesota residents are counted in the 2020 census. AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

In New York, California and other states, officials are focused on how to ensure the U.S. Census counts everybody. That means investing money and conducting research to identify where to spend it.

Counting all of the residents of New York state is the job of the federal government. But a year out from the start of the 2020 census, state and local officials have agreed to spend millions to prevent an undercount, while data experts are zeroing in on the areas most in danger of being neglected.

At stake are many millions of dollars in federal aid in the next decade, and also the size of the congressional delegation of the Empire State. Population shifts already have guaranteed that New York will lose one seat in the House of Representatives. An undercount could cost the state another seat, researchers say.

The same concerns are playing out across the nation, with most states and many localities creating “complete count commissions” and putting together programs to identify and reach people who are considered hard to count.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision, as the justices weigh the Trump Administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the decennial questionnaire. Oral arguments in the case, United States Department of Commerce v. New York were held on April 23, and a decision is expected in June.

Critics say the new question will suppress participation in the census, particularly within minority communities, but conservative Supreme Court justices during the recent arguments seemed inclined to allow its inclusion. New York’s attorney general Letitia James is among those who have sued Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, on the citizenship question.

The  task for state and local officials across the country trying to head off an undercount is made all the more difficult because next year, for the first time, the Census Bureau is mounting a digital-first enterprise. This means they expect that more than half of American households will reply to an online questionnaire.

Hard-to-Count Tracts

The New York data program to identify where resources should go to help with the count was released on May 6 by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a research and teaching arm of the State University of New York. It relied in part on groundbreaking work done by the Hunter College Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Through disciplined analysis of ten factors that have been shown to increase the difficulty of counting groups in the population, the Rockefeller Institute researchers were able to rank the most hard-to-count census tracts. That will allow more focused efforts to reach people deemed hard to count, said Jim Malatras, president of the institute, in an interview.

As a data exercise, the New York initiative’s methodology is of note. First, Malatras and Nicholas Simons, a project coordinator at Rockefeller, sought to set limits on the census tracts that they would examine. They decided that a “hard-to-count” tract was one that had a below-average response in the last census in 2010. That number was 73 percent in the Empire State. They calculated that 36 percent of New York State’s population lives in hard-to-count tracts.

Using the same methodology to analyze other states, the pair concluded that New York has a larger problem than others that also are deeply concerned about undercounts: notably California, with 25 percent of its population in tracts that fell below average response in 2010, and Florida, with 15 percent.

The Rockefeller analysis applied a list of ten characteristics that could depress response: high black or Hispanic or elderly populations, renters, foreign-born people, people with limited English skills, high poverty rates, single-parent homes, and children under 5 years of age. The researchers were able to use recent data from the Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. They assigned values from 1 to 5 for each characteristic. Tracts with the highest scores were most at risk--assigned a high “hardship index” in their analysis.

The researchers zeroed in on the 500 most at-risk tracts. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them were in the outer boroughs of New York City—Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Suburban Westchester County had three of the top 25 tracts. But in the list of 500, many out-of-the way communities in upstate New York were also included.

Alongside New York Secretary of State Rossana Rosado, Malatras co-chairs the New York State Complete Count Commission, whose members include many local officials. He has been tracking how much money is being allocated in the state to promote a full count, and said that the state government has pledged $20 million, New York City’s government $26 million, and various philanthropies about $4 million—adding up to at least $50 million statewide.

While voicing concern that a substantial undercount could cost New York U.S. House two seats instead of the one that’s expected, Malatras said he is just as determined to protect the large amounts of money at stake as well. More than $600 billion in federal funding is tied to census counts. New York receives money from 55 separate programs, by Malatras’ count.

The state has long been concerned that its citizens contribute far more in federal taxes than they receive back in federal benefits. A “balance of payments” analysis originally begun by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been revived by the Rockefeller Institute, and Malatras says it shows New York contributing some $35 billion more in taxes than is returned to the state in federal funding. Most other states receive more than their citizens contribute, the analysis shows.

It’s a nonpartisan issue that also shouldn’t be entangled in New York’s pervasive regional divides. ”Rural upstate counties will suffer alongside urban counties if an undercount deprives us of monies we deserve,” Malatras said.

Across the Nation

Similar concerns were voiced by Arizona officials during a census panel, moderated by Route Fifty’s Mitch Herkis, at the South by Southwest conference in Austin in March.

Mesa Mayor John Giles said that Arizona is benefiting each year from more than $20 billion in federal funds. “Direct grants from the feds, public safety funds, direct checks to the city of Mesa, highway infrastructure, Medicare, there are just a myriad of ways the money comes to us based on the census,” he said, mentioning also that shared state revenue is also based on the count. He figures that funding is running at a rate of about $3,000 per person. “So for every uncounted person, that is $3,000 we don’t have in our community,” he said.

Giles said he worries about “inherent distrust of the government, and reluctance to share information with the government.” People without permanent work or citizenship status are obviously among the most distrustful. In the DACA program, Giles said, the government asked young so-called Dreamers “to please give us data, come out of the shadows, and while that gained some trust, it didn’t turn out too well” when the incoming Trump Administration threatened to throw the 800,000 people who had signed up back into the general pool of immigrants that could be subject to deportation.

The proposed citizenship question would aggravate the difficulties, Giles said.

Jeff Meisel, the Census Bureau’s first-ever chief marketing officer, spoke to the SXSW audience about the urgency of persuading people to participate. “There is absolutely concern about privacy and trust,” he said, “and reluctance to take surveys has been on the increase. We talk about how the Census protects your data—by law cannot give it to anyone else. But when you are giving personal information on a digital device, that is scary for people.”

Arizona authorities are gearing up to spend money to promote participation. Giles told of a meeting of Maricopa County officials, where “we debated whether to spend $1 million, or $1.5 million or $2 million. That’s the dumbest question: we should spend as much as we can, and it will come back to us in federal dollars.” The county, which includes Phoenix, Mesa and other jurisdictions, has more than half the population of the state.

Many communities are already engaged in outreach efforts, picking libraries, community centers and other locations where people can come to get information and use computers to complete census survey when the time comes. Said Meisel, “it’s key that state and local leaders begin early, bringing in advocacy groups to tell the story to their peers and neighbors.”

Denice Ross of Georgetown University, who was also on the panel in Austin, ran through a list of resources for those who would help with the census: CommunityConnect Labs, Civis Analytics, and, among them. Harvard University is also producing a toolkit for mayors, Meisel said.

CommunityConnect Labs, of Redwood City, California, has undertaken to build a “misinformation reporter,” said Ross, to combat malicious fake news aimed at depressing participation. And it is also building a tool to help recruit and support enumerators who will be hired by the Census Bureau to seek out people who don’t respond to census questionnaires.

It’s obvious that enumerators must be recruited from among hard-to-reach groups that would be more inclined to trust counters who look like them. That will be particularly important if the citizenship question is approved by the Supreme Court.

“Recruiting trusted enumerators from the community is huge,” Ross said in an email to Route Fifty. “What's a little weird is that obviously it's the Census doing the hiring. However, the federal hiring process is onerous. So communities can be really savvy about recruiting diverse enumerators from the community and helping them navigate the hiring process.”

A Possible $154 Million Investment

California, the largest state and one of the most diverse, has been actively preparing for next year’s census.

As in New York, census-trackers have identified key indicators that help identify people who are hard to count. The work was done by the California Department of Finance’s Demographic Research Unit, and it includes 14 variables, or four more than were identified in New York by the Rockefeller Institute.

Some well-regarded California nonprofits have claimed that about three-quarters of the Golden State’s population is hard to count. That number was developed by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Tess Thorman, a research associate at PPIC, who has co-written PPIC papers on the census, explained in an email to Route Fifty: “The Census Bureau found that the 2010 census undercounted African Americans, Latinos/as, and Native Americans on reservations, renters, children under 5, and men ages 18-49. Our approach was to simply identify what share of Californians belong to at least one of these groups (excepting Native Americans on reservations, which we could not do in our data).”

“This is admittedly quite broad brush,” Thorman added. But the figure has gained currency, for example in materials on the website of the League of California Cities.

The California Complete Count office doesn’t use the figure, communications chief Diana Crofts-Pelayo said in an email. She noted that “Census tracts with higher CA-HTC indexes are likely to be places that will pose significant challenges to enumerate in 2020, while tracts with lower indexes should be easier to count.” The difficulty of counting areas of the state are displayed on an interactive map of the state.

Crofts-Pelayo said that “State leaders have made a significant commitment to 2020 Census outreach and communication efforts by investing $100.3 million toward strategies and activities that will help ensure an accurate and successful count in California.” Of that amount, $27 million is ticketed for local governments.

Crofts-Pelayo added that Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019-20 budget proposes an additional $54 million to bolster the State’s efforts. “In total this is a proposed $154.3 million investment for the 2020 Census,” she said.

California authorities expect that the state will retain its 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in the wake of the 2020 census. But the Public Policy Institute of California has said that as many at 1.6 million residents might be undercounted and that could “easily” cost the state one of its seats.

Of course, the Golden State is also concerned about flows of federal funds. Not surprisingly, the state receives more than any other, according to  a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures of census-related federal spending in all fifty states.

NCSL also keeps a running track of spending measures states have enacted, or are considering, to ensure complete counts next year. Aside from New York and California, nine other states have enacted such laws, and another nine are actively considering similar legislation.

Adding in California’s pending $54 million in extra spending, these measures would push state-level spending, not counting added local government spending, to a total easily exceeding $200 million, in what is clearly being seen as a critical exercise with consequences for many years to come.

Editor's Note: This story was changed after publication to correct information in a quote by Denice Ross. 

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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