By Daniel C. Vock
As the 2020 Census gets underway, many planners find themselves coordinating the effort to get good, accurate information from the headcount.
"Planners play a critical role, because we have ties to so many different organizations in our communities," says Danielle Barker, the community development director for the city of Durant, Oklahoma, and the APA Oklahoma chapter president. "We can be a mouthpiece for saying, 'Hey, this is important. It doesn't just affect our planning; it affects our infrastructure and our people in general.'"
That impact is substantial: Some $800 billion a year in federal dollars are distributed to states and cities based, in part, on the census. The high stakes are why policy makers worry about making sure various hard-to-reach populations are counted. Across the country, planners are playing a vital role in working to engage those groups — and secure some much-needed resources.
Hear the stories of 10 planners from across the country as they are mobilizing to ensure everyone is counted in the 2020 Census.
Bringing in reinforcements
In southwest Missouri, Jason Ray, AICP, says hard-to-count populations include students at Missouri State University, refugees living in small rural towns, and a local community of about 5,000 Amish residents.
Ray, the president of APA's Missouri chapter, is also the executive director of the Southwest Missouri Council of Governments, which covers 10 counties. The organization announced last year it would head up census promotion efforts in the area, which came as a relief to local jurisdictions that fielded those efforts 10 years ago.
But Ray hopes municipalities will see the regional efforts as reinforcements, not replacements. The Missouri state demographer estimated that the state has lost an estimated $8 billion in federal funding due to undercounting in the 2010 Census. That underscores the need for more successful efforts this time around, Ray says.
The region's 70-member Complete Count Committee helps members share ideas, answer technical questions, and even explore more lighthearted efforts — like a float in Springfield's Christmas parade.
"It was a lot of fun, and we had a great response to it," Ray says.
70 Complete Count Committee members from southwest Missouri tackle creative outreach efforts, like a float in a local parade.
Photo courtesy Missouri 2020 Complete Count Committee.
5% is the increase in self-responses Baltimore is aiming for through a social media campaign that includes video outreach from Mayor Bernard Young.
Image courtesy City of Baltimore.
176,000 members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma were missing from the 2010 Census count. That amounts to 80 percent of the tribe — and a significant loss in federal funding.
Going to residents
In Durant, Oklahoma, community leaders are worried about an undercount of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, says Barker, the city official there. At the time of the 2010 Census, the tribe reported around 200,000 members, but only 24,000 were officially counted. Most respondents said they were members of "Choctaw" or the "Choctaw Nation," which wasn't specific enough for the bureau because there are three federally recognized Choctaw tribes.
Planners are concerned that overall response rates in Durant will be low, Barker says. The area is heavily rural, and residents may not have reliable internet connections or trust the federal government with their data. So local officials are trying to meet residents where they are. They're teaching kids about the census in schools, posting messages on Facebook, and setting up information booths at city hall and the library.
Leveraging social media
In Baltimore, the planning department wants to increase the city's self-response rate from 2010's 68 percent to 73 percent. Elina Bravve, Baltimore's city planner for equity, engagement, and communications, says their hardest-to-reach residents are a broad group. They tend to be people with lower incomes, the elderly, residents with low English proficiency, people who were incarcerated, families with children under five years old, and people experiencing homelessness.
One way the city is engaging with some of these populations is a social media campaign that emphasizes how "safe, easy, and important" the census is, she says. Even the mayor shot a video touting that message for Facebook. Grants will be available to community groups in need of computer equipment.
For populations without access to social media, the city has enlisted a trusted network of "neighborhood ambassadors" for in-person interactions meant to encourage participation.
The planning staff is playing a hands-on role, Bravve says. The city's census director is actually working in the planning department, and other planning staff have been promoting census participation during their regular interactions with community members.
Daniel C. Vock is a public policy reporter based in Washington, D.C.