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Census: ‘The damage has already been done’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It’s that time again.

As mandated in the U.S. Constitution, every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts “the whole number of persons in each State” to gather population and demographic data.

The census asks questions pertaining to how many people live or stay in each home, what sex they are, their age and race, among others.

Numbers from the decennial census are used to establish political representation at every level of government, from local school boards to the U.S. Congress, for the decade to follow. They are also used to determine billions of dollars in funding allocations to state and local entities for hundreds of federal programs.

Final population figures for the 2020 census aren’t due to be delivered to the President until Dec. 31 of that year, but local officials are already making preparations and working on strategies to make sure everyone who should be counted is counted – despite President Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, purportedly to protect voters’ rights, but which some critics say was an attempt to suppress the count of minorities.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled the explanation for adding the question provided by the Trump administration wasn’t supported, and blocked the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?,” from appearing on the 2020 census questionnaire.

But despite the court’s decision, people tasked with assuring the census achieves its objective of counting the entire population and the location which they call home say that the Trump administration’s raising the issue makes the job harder.

“We feel the damage is already done,” said Krista Kelley, president and CEO of Motiva Corp., a firm hired by Santa Fe County to manage and coordinate the census count in the state’s third-largest county. “People are already scared their information will be shared.”

That’s especially true for the immigrant population, already in fear of deportation under Trump’s immigration policies.

“People are afraid,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based immigrants’ rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido, one of more than two dozen groups and individuals nationwide that joined a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to keep the citizenship question off the 2020 census questionnaire.

Díaz serves on Santa Fe County’s Complete Count Committee, formed to try to capture the county’s true population, as well as a similar panel created by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She says getting people to overcome their fears in order to achieve the most accurate census count is essential to immigrants, many of whom benefit from federal programs.

“It’s certainly important to Latinos and immigrants because there’s so much federal funding tied to it,” she said. “Even the slightest undercount can lead to a shortage with the vital social programs used by so many of the people that contribute to our communities in so many ways.”

Data provided by Motiva’s Kelley show that the estimated annual cost of a 1% undercount would impact federal funding to programs in Santa Fe County by $1.8 million – $18.2 million over the next 10 years. An undercount of 3% would result in a $5.4 million per year impact, $54.5 million over the next decade.

Díaz says with so much funding dependent on an accurate census count, it’s critical the immigrant population doesn’t get left out.

“We want to make sure everyone is being counted,” she said.

Billions of dollars at stake

The George Washington Institute of Public Policy last month released figures for federal assistance programs distributed for each state based on census data. While some, like school lunch and health programs, benefit the immigrant population, they also assist the general population, as do many other programs that rely on federal funding.

Of the total program obligations of $7.8 billion that are distributed in New Mexico, nearly $4.4 billion is in the Medical Assistance Program, or Medicaid, according to the report. About $280 million is in the form of federal direct student loans, $195 million is in the form of special education grants, and more than $386 million goes to highway planning and construction. Child and foster care; Section 8 housing assistance; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; nutrition programs for women, infants and children; and supplemental insurance through Medicare are among the programs that receive the most funding for residents of New Mexico.

“These are billions of dollars that flow into cities and even households,” said Robert Rhatigan, state demographer and head of the Population Research Unit at the University of New Mexico’s Geospatial and Population Studies. “If there’s an undercount, the federal reimbursement rate will go down.”

Rhatigan said it’s also important to get an accurate count because the data are used to draw political boundaries for city, county and state districts, and serve as the foundation for demographic information for the next 10 years.

It can have an impact on economic development, he said, because companies looking to do business in the state want to know the community makeup and things like per-capita income and unemployment rates to decide whether to invest here.

“Money, data and power,” he said are the force behind the census.

Rhatigan is among those who are happy the citizenship question will not be included in the 2020 census. He says it shouldn’t be because the census requires that everyone living in the country is to be counted, regardless of immigration status, and political districts are drawn based on population, not the number of U.S. citizens.

“The good news is there is no citizenship question. I think it’s clear that would have suppressed the count and undermined what the census is intended to do,” he said. “We’re talking about money that’s used for health care, schools and roads, political representation, and better data used to make decisions.”

Even without the citizenship question, Rhatigan said there are obstacles census takers have to overcome. Some areas are just harder to count than others.

“And what’s particularly challenging is the reasons for that vary across the state,” he said.

For instance, Catron County, one of the least populated counties in the state, had the lowest initial response rate to census mailings during the 2010 census.

According to the website www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey, only 45% of households in Catron County mailed back their 2010 census questionnaire. That requires “more costly and difficult in-person follow up to count the remaining 54.9%,” it says in its analysis. “This tract is one of the hardest to count in the country.”

“The reason, and we have to take guesses, may be that Catron County has a libertarian bent and there’s a general distrust of the federal government,” Rhatigan said. “That’s very different from counting immigrant families down on the border.”

Census responses in the 21st century

Somos un Pueblo Unido’s Díaz says immigrant families share a distrust in the government, but for different reasons.

“There is a general distrust of the local and federal government (by immigrants) and that’s one reason why New Mexico is one of the states with the highest potential for an undercount. We’re trying to figure out how (to) mitigate that in the county,” she said.

Many immigrant families fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, she says, and won’t answer a knock on the door for anyone, presenting another obstacle for census workers.

For the first time, however, the internet will be used to collect census information. Whereas, throughout the history of the country, census data was collected on paper, the process has moved into the 21st century.

This time, starting in mid-March, residents will receive postcards from the Census Bureau that direct them to a website where they can self-respond to the census through the month of July 2020. If there’s no response after the initial contact, another postcard is sent. Absent a response from that mailer, there will be an attempt to contact residents by phone. If that fails, census takers visit homes, no matter how remote they may be.

But even this new approach presents challenges.

“For this particular census, we anticipate the lack of internet access will make it extremely difficult,” said Kelley, the census coordinator for Santa Fe County. “And because of the way the census is being rolled out, it could cause confusion for those people who are not as technically savvy, or have a hearing impediment, and were used to getting the printed form. So we anticipate that a greater number of elderly individuals will have a harder time with it than they had in the past.”

Kelley said other barriers to getting a complete count include rural areas that are hard to get to. “Some don’t even have addresses,” she said. “That makes it difficult for census workers, if there’s no address.”

Seasonal residents, especially in Santa Fe, where people own second homes, but live here only part of the year, also presents a challenge.

But high on her list of concerns is the residual effect of what she called the “scare tactic” used by the Trump administration to add the citizenship question.

“People see someone walk up to their door, they won’t want to answer it,” she said.

The hardest-to-count areas in Santa Fe County are around Pojoaque and Cuyamungue north of the city of Santa Fe, she said, noting that the Census Bureau deals directly with tribes in the count.

With a population that’s 69% Hispanic, the hard-to-count website also lists this area as one of the hardest to count in the country.

Next hardest is the area around Chimayó and La Puebla, which is 85% Hispanic.

Glorieta, Eldorado, Madrid, Cerrillos, Galiesteo and a strip along Airport Road in Santa Fe also present challenges, based on the response rate from the 2010 census.

The county’s Complete Count Committee will launch a campaign to educate residents about the importance of completing the census

“Our Santa Fe County Board of County Commissioners has been concerned for some time about the challenges with the 2020 census and the drastic fiscal consequences of an undercount,” Patricia Bois, the county’s Health and Human Services director said in a written statement provided to the Journal.

So the board formed the Complete Count Committee, chaired by Commissioner Henry Roybal, who represents the northern part of the county where many of the hard-to-count neighborhoods are, and hired Motiva Corp. to lead the effort, the statement says.

“So far, we are one of only a few counties in New Mexico that have established such a committee. The Complete Count Committee is up and running, and the next steps will be to develop a work plan for outreach and education, and enlist people in our efforts to ensure as complete a count as possible,” Bois said.

Díaz said Somos un Pueblo Unido will assist by conducting workshops, phone banking and canvassing neighborhoods.

Rhatigan, the state demographer, said non-citizens shouldn’t have to worry about answering a knock on their door and suggested a way to avoid that scenario.

“For anybody who does not want a federal employee knocking on their door, the best thing for them to do is to go online and complete the information,” he said.

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