Accurate 2020 census a priority for Inslee

State has spent months ramping up efforts in anticipation of federal actions that could undermine the constitutionally required count

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a count of the nation’s population every 10 years.

When done right, the nationwide census conducted every 10 years ensures that states receive appropriate representation in Congress as well as their fair share of federal funding for everything from health care and education to transportation and foster care.

But the accuracy of the 2020 census, which is mandated to count every person living in the country regardless of citizenship status, is at risk. Underfunding, a transition to an online system, and the Trump administration’s stated intention of adding a citizenship question on the census form are causing concerns that participation will be suppressed and the 2020 census will fall short of delivering an accurate count.

In Washington state, officials started laying the groundwork last year in anticipation of efforts to jeopardize the decadal count. The governor’s budget office, which works with the U.S. Census Bureau, launched an early outreach effort to local governments to ensure the state has updated lists of every residential address in every county. It is also developing an outreach plan to encourage participation, especially among immigrant communities and lower-income communities with limited internet access.

Washington is one of several states suing the feds over the citizenship question, which hasn’t been part of the census for nearly 60 years.

In December, Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to officials with Washington’s cities, counties and other jurisdictions to share concerns and prepare for a beefed-up state effort.

“All indications are that the federal government’s 2020 census efforts will not be as vigorous as previous counts, including reduced funding for outreach and community engagement efforts,” Inslee wrote. “This makes it even more important that we step up at the state level.”

What’s at stake

Counting every person living in the United States and its territories each decade is mandated by our nation’s Constitution.

Census data determines how many congressional seats are allocated to each state. It also guides $13.7 billion in federal funds to Washington every year. For every household missed by the count, the state loses an estimated $4,800 in annual per capita funding.

A report released by researchers at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy highlighted a number of large, federal assistance programs that allocate money to states based on statistics derived from the census. They include:

  • Nutrition programs for families, including the National School Lunch Program; SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children
  • Grants for highway planning and construction
  • Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income residents, and Medicare Part B, which provides medical insurance for those 65 and older and the disabled
  • Child care subsidies for low-income working families
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program, popularly known as CHIP
  • Special education grants for schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • Title I grants, which support schools with a high percentage of low-income students
  • Early childhood learning programs such as Head Start
  • Section 8 housing assistance
  • Funding for the state’s foster care system
  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, which helps families with energy costs

The 2020 census is also the basis for state population estimates that determine the annual allocation of about $200 million to counties and cities from the state General Fund.

Community leaders across the state, including Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert, say a census undercount would be felt on the local level. In Arlington, previous census information helped the city invest in road widening and economic development projects, for example.

Data collected through the census “allows governing bodies to make informed policy decisions that implement and support services including education, health care, housing, transportation, human services and environmental regulation,” Tolbert wrote in a recent column.

Washington’s mission: Make sure everyone counts

The most important steps leaders in our state can take for an accurate census include mobilizing a statewide address collection effort ahead of the count and reaching out to underserved populations — including people of color and immigrants — to encourage their participation.

Inslee’s letter asked local jurisdictions to register for the U.S. Census Bureau’s Local Update of Census Addresses program, which helps ensure the census has access to the most up-to-date list of addresses in cities and counties before census workers start canvassing. If jurisdictions don’t register, there is a greater risk the Census Bureau will have an incomplete list of households to survey and that the census will not ultimately reflect the true number of state residents.

A census worker, left, gets help from a crew of sled dogs to interview a respondent, right, in Fairbanks, Alaska, during the 1940 census. (Census publicity photo/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

A total of 25 counties, 13 tribal areas and 111 cities or towns have registered with LUCA, and it is expected that many cities will allow their counties to conduct their review, according to the state’s budget agency, the Office of Financial Management.

OFM will use its resources to update addresses in jurisdictions that do not register for LUCA, focusing first on areas of the state that have experienced considerable growth or are home to underserved populations. To conduct this review, OFM’s Population Unit has compiled a list of 3 million residential addresses from administrative records, a capture of most households in the state.

Washington has a head start when it comes to learning the LUCA system. It was one of a handful of states selected to test an early version of the software.

And Pierce County, Wash., was one of three counties in the nation chosen last year by the Census Bureau to test its address canvassing abilities, helping the bureau prepare for the main event.

The state’s 2018 supplemental budget provided an investment of $464,000 for a census director, part-time geographic information system technician and other staffing support.

The census director will develop a statewide census strategy and collaborate with local governments on their counts while the GIS technician will support the LUCA process. OFM will request additional funding in the biennial budget for advertising and outreach so citizens are aware that the census has begun and how they can participate.

A 1940 census form.

Getting the word out

Historically, people of color, people with limited English skills, homeless people, undocumented immigrants, children, people who move frequently, people who distrust the government, and members of the LGBTQ community have been disproportionately undercounted in the census, according to OFM.

Officials worry that a citizenship question may deter census participation from immigrant communities, and that relying more heavily on the internet to conduct the count could make it harder to reach low-income communities where not everyone has internet access.

These concerns are prompting the state to build a larger-than-usual public education campaign through efforts with local governments, businesses and community organizations, including those representing minority groups. A key message of the campaign: The information any Washington resident provides is secure and confidential.

It is safe, even for undocumented immigrants, to talk to a census worker and to fill out a census form. It is a crime for a census worker to share answers with anyone; doing so is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing census data with other agencies, including the FBI.

Learn more about the state’s work to ensure an accurate 2020 census at ofm.wa.gov/census.

Census Day is April 1, 2020.