Local governments are collaborating to support an accurate count in the 2020 census, partly based on a concern that the federal government will not provide enough resources to complete the task correctly.
Avoiding an undercount is paramount for myriad reasons, according to Phillip Supino, a long-range planner with the city of Aspen’s Community Development Department who has been leading the initiative.
The decennial census is “the fundamental federal exercise,” he said, with hundreds of billions of dollars allocated each year for infrastructure and essential services based on the demographic data it produces. The reapportionment of congressional and statehouse seats, which also happens every 10 years, is based on the census, meaning that a democracy that is truly representative of the population it serves is on the line.
Supino, who was recently appointed to a state of Colorado committee focused on the census, said he became concerned about a year ago that the federal government could be on the road to bungling the 2020 count. Congress has not fully funded the U.S. Census Bureau’s budget requests, and the effort could be as much as $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion short by the end of 2020, he said.
In addition, there is the controversy over the Trump administration’s initiative to have the census include a citizenship question, where, for the first time, respondents would be asked their residency status. The census is intended to be a count of every U.S. resident, no matter their status, and including such a question is likely to diminish participation among communities that are already under-represented in the results, Supino said. Colorado is one of a dozen states that is suing the federal government over the citizenship question, and the city has filed an amicus brief in support of the state’s case, Supino said.
The national conversation around immigration and citizenship is “already making vulnerable communities more freaked out,” Supino said, and the citizenship question threatens to make the problem worse.
With all that in mind, Supino and Community Development Director Jessica Garrow began working last year on an initiative to make sure that, at least locally, the census is done right.
Leading off those efforts is an analysis of the 2010 census, comparing voter registration and property ownership data with census results using GIS mapping. That project showed an undercount in Pitkin County of at least 200 people. Compared to a total population at the time of just over 17,100, according to the state demography office, undercounting by 200 “is a real number,” Supino said — especially considering that each person accounted for in the census translates to approximately $4,500 per year in funding, he said.
“There is a real incentive to get the census right, to make sure the feds get the census right,” he said.
Forging a ‘census toolkit’
The methodology the city and county used to analyze the 2010 figures will be made available to any other jurisdiction that wants to use it, part of a “census toolkit” that aims to help the Roaring Fork Valley and Western Slope avoid an undercount. A critical part of that is knowing where undercounting happened in 2010 to avoid it being repeated this time around.
Pitkin County is working on securing funding for an outreach campaign to take place in 2019 to encourage understanding of and participation in the census, Supino said. In general, the effort aims to strengthen intergovernmental coordination to ensure an accurate count and build trust in the census effort.
The city, along with the town of Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, sent a letter to Colorado’s congressional delegation last March noting that the local government agencies are “united in our concern over the current status of funding and preparations for the 2020 census.”
“As local governments in rural western Colorado, the residents of our respective jurisdictions depend on a fair, accurate and comprehensive decennial census to support the services upon which our communities and region depend,” the letter says.
It adds, “Understanding demographic factors like in- and out-migration, birth and death rates, housing metrics and population density is essential to the functions of local government. …If the 2020 census is not funded as required for efficient execution and scientifically accurate data, the data gathered will be compromised. This will have negative impacts on budgeting and planning at the local level for a decade.”
The letter requests that “census funding should be sufficient to address the needs of the bureau in 2018, 2019 and 2020, as well as back-filling the estimated $600 million shortfall in funding left over from the 2016 and 2017 budget years.”
John Whitney, Sen. Michael Bennet’s Western Slope regional director, responded with an email saying that “we share those concerns” and that the senator has been raising concerns outlined in the letter with overseers of the census.
“We will continue to push for a fair and accurate 2020 census,” Whitney’s email says.
‘A loud and direct voice’
Supino will sit on a statewide committee organized by the Department of Local Affairs called the Complete Count Campaign. The volunteer board will meet monthly, with additional subcommittee meetings.
Initiatives include identifying and providing strategic outreach efforts, increased awareness, identifying areas of concern and strategies to address those concerns while leveraging existing resources, and encouraging additional local complete count campaigns.
Supino was appointed after applying to the committee and said he is pleased to bring the city’s perspective to the group. It’s a natural fit given the amount of legwork that has already happened to analysis issues going into the 2020 count.
“It gives us a loud and direct voice to make sure the census happens properly,” he said. “The city is excited to assist in a leadership role on a state committee.”