“We Did Everything We Could”: Community Organizations Fear A Census Undercount

by Luna Reyna

As a child, I can recall two groups of strangers coming to our door: census workers and religious groups. My Latinx family of 7 never opened the door for either. The fear and lack of trust in government-affiliated institutions has always been tangible, and rightly so, in many marginalized communities. This fear has contributed to federally-underfunded schools, hospitals, public transportation, and even Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the past. All federal funding is guided and allocated through the findings of the decennial census.   

In early 2018, the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. By May 2018, the accusation that the government intended to use this to discriminate against minorities had moved advocates to challenge the citizenship question. Roughly two dozen community organizations filed a lawsuit asserting that “the inclusion of a citizenship question in the decennial Census violates the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment because it is motivated by racial animus towards Latinos, Asian Americans, and animus towards non-U.S. citizens and foreign-born persons.”  

The Supreme Court later blocked the Trump administration from including the citizenship question on the decennial form, but not before frightening immigrant populations about participating in the census and making the work of community organizations much more difficult. “The first thing that people were worried about was the question about citizenship. I knew that everybody was worried about that,” explains Mahnaz Eshetu, Executive Director at Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA). “Because of all the uncertainty that was created in the past four  years, of course people are wary to answer any questions. It took a lot of effort from our staff.” 

ReWA employs refugees and immigrants in order to better serve the multicultural communities that seek its support. This allows the organization to provide a range of services for women and refugee families from over 70 countries in their native languages. During ReWA’s efforts to make sure that these communities were counted, client concerns about losing their housing, about the police, and about citizenship all came up. “We let them know that Title 13 protects their rights,” says Angel Taherazer, coordinator BD/career coach at ReWA. “We made sure that our case managers and all of our staff were communicating that. Still, I think there is fear, fairly so, but because they come to us and they trust us, we provide some ease. We are community leaders and messengers, so we were able to share that.”

El Centro de la Raza, another local non-profit community organization that primarily works with immigrant populations, including undocumented or mixed-status families, dealt with a similar apprehension about filling out the census. “We knew when the citizenship question first came up that this was something that we would have to campaign around,” says Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez, Executive Assistant at El Centro. “At the end of July, the president made another announcement trying to tie citizenship to the census. We heard more hesitancy after that, which is really unfortunate, now that we are coming close to the end of the census response collection time.”

Nevertheless, community organizations like El Centro have continued to encourage participation. According to Marc Baldwin, assistant director for the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM), there was almost 13-million dollars in contracts awarded to 26 community organizations and fiscal agents through a competitive process in the summer of 2019. Of that $13 million, funds were then distributed to smaller organizations, “such that the state was able to partner with over 300 organizations across the state,” Baldwin explains. “The community strategy has been to encourage self-response instead of getting a visit from a federal census taker. This has been advocated as safer, less invasive, and less expensive.” 

An incredible amount of grassroots labor has been expedited during this challenging census year. Utilizing the case managers who are already working in these communities, who speak the same language and understand the same culture, is pivotal to an accurate count each census. OFM partnered with 86 organizations in King County alone. Partnerships like these have proven to be extremely efficient at reaching and obtaining responses from communities that have been historically Hard to Count (HTC). 

What nobody could have anticipated was the public health emergency that excluded much of the previously planned in-person census assistance. “We had so many exciting plans prior to COVID-19,” says Taherazer. “We had nine different in-person workshops planned as well as many in the community churches, at a variety of community centers that our case managers had relationships with. Anywhere that we felt that the immigrant and refugee communities gathered, we had a strategy to go out there to answer any questions they might have.”

All of that changed after the pandemic. 

Fortunately, training was possible pre-COVID, so staff were informed and ready to create awareness and facilitate community outreach, even after COVID-19 hit. Instead of in-person census assistance, case managers were able to walk clients through the census process over the phone, in their own language. “Within my team we were doing about a hundred and twelve of those calls a week from the end of March to mid-June,” asserts Vasquez. Because many HTC communities have a technology barrier, these community organizations used to rely on giving in-person assistance. This year, those efforts were primarily exchanged for telephone calls. 

Additionally, organizations created language-specific handouts and videos. They were also able to run radio ads and send postcard reminders. “We had to get creative,” Vasquez explains. “We distribute masks every week to individuals and participants that need them. We made a little brochure that has face mask washing instructions and on the other side it has information about how to fill out the census, when the deadline is, and how it helps us.”  

These unique kinds of outreach efforts are crucial, even in non-pandemic times. Children, for instance, also fall within the HTC communities. The 2010 Census saw a net undercount of 4.6% of children aged zero to four. “When census enumerators count households there is a much higher error rate, and we are hearing reports that they are getting only full data on one person and using administrative data to fill in the rest,” says Deborah Stein, Network Director at Partnership for America’s Children. “That puts young children particularly at risk of being missed.” The fact that HTC communities are more likely to live in multigenerational households attributes to this undercount as well. The Center for Human Services in Shoreline has made this issue an important focus of their outreach efforts.

Another big concern is a continued undercount of Native peoples, who were the most undercounted group in the last census. “We are a tribe that doesn’t have federal status, but we are still people of the United States,” explains Cecile Hansen, Tribal Chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe. “I haven’t received anything as a private citizen or at the tribal office because they don’t think that we’re here. I feel like an outsider.” 

Despite these failures, Washington State has the 4th-highest total response rate in the country. Still, the September 30 deadline for nonresponse follow-up has many people worried. Field data collection was originally pushed to October 31 due to the pandemic, but was later moved back, shortening the response period by a month in an already difficult census year. “There are some places that are doing phenomenal, like Renton, which has a higher census count than they did in 2010,” Vasquez says. “There are other places, specifically in South King County, that I feel like are going to be missed due to the shifting end dates and now the rush on nonresponse follow-up. I think despite all the work that so many different community-based organizations have been doing, there are still going to be people who aren’t represented in the census.” 

And that lack of representation could have a deep impact. If one thing is clear to Vasquez and all the community organizations working tirelessly right now, it’s that marginalized communities will bear the brunt of an undercount. “Unfortunately, a lot of the people who fall under the hard-to-count communities are people who are in the most need of the resources that come from the census statistics,” says Vasquez. “The fact that there’s less time now for the nonresponse follow-up is really unfortunate. For there to be less time for that sort of engagement really hurts our communities and the other resources that are available in King County.”

Still, says ReWA’s Eshetu, “We’ve done our best, we worked really hard, we have worked with so many organizations.” Although COVID-19 was a clear impediment, “We did everything we could and I’m proud of what we did.” 

Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.

Featured image attributed to Ryan McGuire and is in the public domain.