Federal Official Urges Counties to Assure Residents Completing Census is Safe

A sample U.S. Census form in 2010.

A sample U.S. Census form in 2010. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

“Put out the message that it’s safe. Because people are afraid.”

LAS VEGAS — Local governments have a crucial role to play in the 2020 census informing residents that the survey is important, easy to complete, and that the Census Bureau will not pass respondent information to other government agencies, experts said here on Monday.

The Trump administration has abandoned its efforts to include a question asking people about their citizenship status on the upcoming headcount. Critics warned that the question threatened to depress response rates, particularly in places with large immigrant communities.

But even with the question scrapped, people involved in preparing for the survey say respondents will need reassurances that responding will not somehow land them in trouble.

Tim Olson, associate director for field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau, stressed that the information cannot be shared with law enforcement, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the Internal Revenue Service.

“We cannot share it with anybody outside of the bureau,” he told county officials on hand here for the National Association of Counties annual conference. “Put out the message that it’s safe. Because people are afraid,” Olson added. “You’ve got to let them know it’s safe.”

Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts campaign for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, echoed Olson’s point. She said it’s “good news” that the citizenship question will not appear on the census, but that there are still high levels of distrust of government. 

This extends beyond immigrant populations, she added, noting for example that people in some black communities might be worried about having information shared with local police, or that Native Americans may have concerns related to tribal sovereignty.

“Now the real work begins in terms of reaching out to those communities that are still fearful and may be confused,” she said. “Think about reinforcing that safety message.”

There are a range of reasons why the accuracy of the once-a-decade census is significant. The count helps to guide the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding, as well as congressional representation for each state and members of the Electoral College.

Adding a twist to next year’s census is that the federal government for the first time will allow people to submit responses online over a secured website. But they can also complete the survey over the phone in multiple languages, or by filling out a paper questionnaire.

After an initial push between next March and early May to get people to respond on their own, the Census Bureau will mount a door-to-door campaign involving about a half-million workers to reach additional households that haven’t yet participated.

“Households that are worried about immigration enforcement, households that are worried about losing benefits because they’ve got too many people in the housing unit,” Olson said. “The simplest way is to self-respond so we don’t follow up.”

Olson said a key step counties can take is to establish a Complete Count Committee—a locally based organization that can assist the Census Bureau and other government entities with outreach and coordination efforts to help bolster participation in the census.

Lynk noted that the committees can take on different forms depending on the jurisdiction, with the size of their membership and their subcommittees varying.

But she advised having a subgroup focused specifically on communication and identifying trusted messengers who can reach out to communities at risk of being undercounted.

Religious leaders, educators and social services providers are among those that Olson recommended that counties should try to involve in the committees.

He also suggested local governments consider how they reach people in emergency management situations and whether those techniques can be adapted for census outreach.

The Census Bureau has data and tools available online he explained that can help local governments identify, map and understand the demographics of hard to count households.

He said local officials should use the data to craft a strategic plan so they’re focusing people in their areas they believe could prove to be the hardest to count. “If you do that, the messaging goes to all of the other parts of the county naturally,” Olson added. “They all hear about what you’re doing.”

Sending smartphone messages about the survey and setting up census kiosks are some of the other options officials have been looking at, according to Lynk. Some states and localities, she noted, are setting aside money to help with efforts to reach hard to count communities.

Olson says that with the census preparation this year, the level of civic engagement is especially high. “That brings with it some chaos,” he said. “A lot of people. A lot of voices.” But he also suggested that much of this activity is driven by the notion that “everybody needs to be included.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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