Half a million households across the United States have been mailed a test census form from the federal Census Bureau, and those forms have started to show up in local mailboxes. Two versions of the forms were sent out. One included a question about residents’ citizenship status, even though action by the Supreme Court has since made it unlikely that the question will show up on the actual spring 2020 census.
According to the Census Bureau, the primary purpose of the test forms is to calculate an estimated response rate so that it can plan ahead for information campaigns and the number of census workers needed to follow up with non-responding households.
Phillip Supino, long range planner for the city of Aspen, has been appointed to the state Complete Count Committee and is heading up the census efforts in the valley, with additional financial support from Pitkin County and the town of Snowmass Village. He said the local Roaring Fork Valley Complete Count Committee encourages all residents to fill out and return the test forms.
“We strongly recommend that people fill out the test form and return it to help get the census right, because the success of the census has tremendous benefits for our local community,” Supino said. “If you care about the school that your kids go to, if you care about the roads that you drive on, responding accurately and on time to the census will ensure that state and local governments get the resources they need in order to continue to provide the services that you rely on.”
On June 27, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case United States Department of Commerce v. New York that the Department of Commerce did not have a justifiable reason to add the citizenship question to the census. However, President Donald Trump continues to push for the inclusion of the question and news changes day to day regarding the plausibility of the question being added now that printing has begun on the 600 million documents that will be sent to American households.
Supino filed testimony in the case, claiming that a citizenship status question on the census would hurt all residents in the Roaring Fork Valley. He wrote that a signifiant portion of the valley’s workforce are naturalized citizens, green card holders, seasonal visa holders and undocumented workers. He said these workers may avoid filling out their census forms because they are weary of giving the federal government their address and citizenship status.
“These workers are the backbone of Aspen and the region's service industries and they rely on a wide range of public goods and services, from roads and buses to health and human services. As such, it is vital that they are counted in the decennial Census as residing in the region,” Supino wrote.
Census data determines grants and funding opportunities that are per-capita based, often impacting programs to support lower income residents like food assistance. The population numbers are also used when states draw their legislative boundaries.
“In rural areas, such as Colorado's Western Slope, where population density is relatively low, ensuring a complete count in the census is essential, particularly in areas of low income and government services. Otherwise, these populations will be denied important political representation,” says Supino’s filing.
Supino has worries that extend past the citizenship question. Funding for the 2020 census is far behind previous decades. The Census Bureau rents office spaces throughout the country and hires nearly half a million temporary workers to pull off the country-wide survey. Supino hopes the valley’s complete count committee can help overcome resource shortfalls on the federal level.
“Given the ongoing budget and political constraints being placed on the 2020 effort, the city anticipates a poorly executed census with low participation and undercounting. The city is taking steps to avoid these results to the extent possible and has contracted with experts to map areas of past and potential future undercount in the 2020 Census,” he wrote.
A study by the city of Aspen compared population data such as voter registration and utility infrastructure to past census return rates to find areas where the census turnout was low.
“We know who the hard-to-count populations are, but where they are was a very specific exercise for our valley,” Supino said in an interview.
The Roaring Fork Complete Count Committee will meet as a whole next week to prepare informational campaigns to encourage more participation this time around.
“We identified a half dozen places between Aspen and Snowmass and unincorporated Pitkin County where we know the population is significantly higher than the number of census responses that were received,” he said.
Those neighborhoods include areas with high seasonal residents or second homeowners, hard to find addresses and subdivisions and places where there are larger populations of non-citizen residents.
Though the citizenship question may not be on the 2020 census, it is on half of the test forms that were sent out prior to the Supreme Court ruling. Supino stressed that the forms should be filled out either way and that the information provided will neither be collected for the official census nor shared with any other agencies.
“All we can say is the federal government has very clear regulations about the sharing of information between departments. The Census Bureau is not permitted under federal law to share census data with any other department including the [Department of Justice], the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or any other law enforcement agencies that might be involved in immigration enforcement issues,” he said.
As the political and legal battles continue around the inclusion of citizenship status on the census, Supino said the local effort will stay focused on getting every single resident counted in April so that federal funding and legislative boundaries will accurately represent the area.
“Our position is that the citizenship question would have been a disaster and we are pleased that it is presently not going to be included on the form,” Supino said. “That allows us to focus our outreach efforts on participation generally, not trying to overcome fear of the inclusion of this question which would have been totally unnecessary and counterproductive.”