Though census forms aren’t delivered until April, groups on the local and federal levels are working hard behind the scenes to make sure residents of the Roaring Fork Valley get their shot at being counted and hired for local jobs when census day arrives.
A group of local governments, nonprofits and other community leaders known as the Aspen to Parachute Complete Count Committee has been meeting monthly to develop a community outreach plan.
Alex Sánchez, executive director of the nonprofit Valley Settlement, is on the Complete Count steering committee and leading the effort to ensure that undercounted populations are reached in the 2020 count. He said the conversation needs to start with acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the immigrant and Spanish-speaking population.
“We know that these concerns, because of the political climate we live in today and the anti-immigrant rhetoric, they are real,” Sánchez said. “We have a responsibility to do our very best to ensure that those individuals who have the highest potential of being undercounted because of legitimate fears, that we do we do everything humanly possible to get as much information to them as possible.”
Sánchez said reaching out to religious leaders, educators and other trusted community leaders is one strategy to spread information about the census to skeptical populations.
Population counts from the decennial census are used in the per-capita allocation of federal funds for things like public education, infrastructure and social programs. Those population counts also determine electorate districts that determine how many state representatives Colorado will get in Congress, as well as state senate and house district maps.
Colorado receives about $1,344 from the federal government per resident, which is a net federal funding of negative $95 each. The greater Roaring Fork Valley’s population is around 80,000, so an undercount of even one percent of the population costs the area more than $1 million annually.
An attempt to get a citizenship question on the census forms by the Trump administration this year reignited distrust of the process. Along with the safety factor, Sánchez said another big determinant of who can participate in this year’s census is the switch to an online response option for the first time ever.
“The digital divide is real, there are families who have no access to the internet, no access to computers at home,” Sánchez said. “It forces communities to think about creative ways (to encourage involvement).”
He listed partnerships with libraries and mobile resource buses as ways of bringing the online response option to those without computer access.
Every residential address will be sent a census form and follow-up reminder encouraging households to fill out their census responses online. For those who do not choose that option, a third letter will be sent with a paper form to be filled out and mailed back. It is not until that form also is neglected that census workers would begin knocking on the doors of non-respondents.
The U.S. Census Bureau is well into its recruitment efforts for those positions. In the Roaring Fork Valley, census jobs pay between $16 and $16.50, plus mileage reimbursement. The part-time, temporary positions are flexible, so those with other jobs could add their census work into their free time.
Brian Meinhart, U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist for the Western Slope, encouraged anyone who is interested to get their applications in now, even if their plans for the spring are a little uncertain.
“We are encouraging everybody with an interest to apply,” Meinhart said. “Get the application in, we will call you and work with you on hours.”
The goal is to hire local workers to do the enumeration within their own community. With the switch to the digital response option, Laurie Cipriano, U.S. Census Bureau media specialist, said fewer workers will be needed this time around than in 2010. She still estimates that there will be work for about 500 people in the valley.
Phillip Supino, city of Aspen long-range planner, serves on the Colorado Census Committee and is heading up the local Complete Count Committee.
“Having local people, with local knowledge of topography, geography and demographics, is extremely important because they are going to understand how best to communicate with their friends and neighbors about filling out their census form,” Supino said. “They are going to understand where challenging or hard-to-find locations of residential areas and households might be.”
And while the wages are in the middle range of a typical hourly rate in the valley, it could offer some extra income just as off-season begins and earnings go down.
“Employing local people is important because there is an economic stimulus component to this census exercise and we want to make sure that our population, who might be looking for part-time work, have an opportunity to have that,” Supino said.
The application to become a census worker is online, and takes about half an hour to complete. Applicants must be U.S.-born citizens and are required to provide their Social Security number, home address and phone number. They also must complete a criminal background check.
Meinhart said the background check is to ensure the privacy and security of census data.
“We need to make sure we are as careful as we absolutely can be with folks’ information because they are entrusting that to us,” he said.
The hiring push is slightly ahead of the local community organizing around the census. The Aspen to Parachute Complete Count Committee has applied for a grant that would help support outreach positions and materials. They will be notified of the results of that application on Nov. 1.
“We are going to be ‘pedal to the metal’ of deployment of our outreach campaign by Jan. 1, so we are still in the development phase right now,” Supino said.
Sánchez said that while the volunteer community groups are doing all they can to get the message out and recruit a census workforce, ultimately the task falls on the federal government.
“The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that, to the extent possible, they are hiring from local talent and that they are hiring voices and faces that are going to connect with the population,” Sánchez said.
Yet, community organizers say the value gained to the valley as a whole for making sure every resident is accounted for when it comes to funding and representation makes it a worthwhile regional effort.
“I think it takes both the community and the federal government working together making sure you are competitive in those markets, and that you are trying to find and connect as many people as possible,” Sánchez said.