From The Weekly Calistogan: 2020 Census in Napa Valley: The importance of being counted

August 12, 2019, Staff

“I’m excited to fill out the census. It’s a way for me and my family to be heard.”

“Can I participate if I’m not officially on the lease at my apartment?”

“If I have to fill out the census online, how do I know my information won’t be hacked?”

The 2020 US Census won’t get underway until March 2020, but there’s already been plenty of talk about the upcoming headcount in our community – and no wonder, given its significance. The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to undertake a census once every 10 years, and everyone must be counted: Babies, children, and adults; citizens and non-citizens alike. This mandate is so important because the U.S. is a representative democracy: Power and resources are meant to be distributed equitably among the population. In order to ensure that that distribution really is representative, the government needs an accurate picture of how many people live in the country, and where they’re located. And indeed, every ten years, the results of the census are used to evaluate the distribution of electoral votes, congressional seats, and funding between the 50 states – it determines how much money each community across the country receives for its schools, roads, health clinics, and so on.

Likewise, businesses look at the census to inform decisions about where to expand or minimize their operations; and social service providers use the count to determine things like where to build new childcare centers, where to dispatch more nurses, or where to send more emergency preparedness resources.

The 2020 Census will be a little different from previous years. For the first time, people will be able to use the internet and/or their mobile phone to respond. This embrace of technology is meant to make participation easier than ever. However, it may also inadvertently discourage some from responding – such as people who are unfamiliar with computers. And because so much is riding on the outcome of the census, communities all over the country are already working hard to anticipate and address these kinds of potential new barriers to full census participation. Across California, including in Napa County, Complete Count Committees (CCC) have come together to figure out how to encourage maximum census participation next year, and how to make participating as easy as possible.

In 2010, about 75 percent of Napa County households mailed back the census forms they received in the mail. The Napa CCC’s goal is to increase that participation rate by at least five points in 2020. To do that most effectively, the committee brings together representatives from local government, businesses, nonprofits, and the community at large, and has every member assigned to one of several subcommittees, each of which is tasked with a specific dimension of the census project.

The Target Populations subgroup, for example, is working to develop tailored strategies to reach every community that’s been identified as potentially “hard to count” – including seniors, immigrants, non-English speakers, families with young children, and people in geographically isolated areas. The first step in that process has focused on conducting so-called “empathetic interviews.” With support from regional funders – including the Latino Community Foundation and the Napa Valley Community Foundation – organizations like the UpValley Family Centers have been leading efforts to talk with people in these communities and learn more about how they are feeling about the census. These conversations have yielded valuable information about the barriers people foresee to their participation, and about what questions they have about the census process – information that will help the Target Populations subcommittee and the CCC as a whole develop effective outreach and education strategies over the next several months.

One important lesson learned from these interviews, for example, is that a lot of people will need hands-on support to navigate the technical parts of the census – whether it’s accessing a computer to fill out the online form, or figuring out how to order a paper version. Another important insight is that many people are unsure about whether they are supposed to be counted – because they aren’t citizens, because they’re not listed on the lease at their apartment, or because they’re not yet 18. This tells the CCC that its outreach needs to emphasize the message that everyone should be counted, regardless of age, gender, immigration status, housing situation, or ethnicity.

A third vital learning from these empathetic interviews is the importance of bridging a gap in trust. Many people don’t have much faith in the government these days, and they express fear – for a variety of reasons – about sharing their personal information with a federal agency. The CCC’s outreach messaging will have to explain that information provided to the census is confidential – and that, by law, the government is prohibited from using this information against individuals or their families. But to be fully effective in reaching potentially “hard to count” communities, the CCC realizes, it will have to involve “trusted messengers” – people or organizations who already have a community’s trust, and are considered a safe, reputable source of information.

This means that trusted organizations like UVFC and its corps of Promotoras, or community wellness volunteers, will continue to play a crucial role in the CCC’s work. Their existing connection with isolated, marginalized upvalley communities will allow them to effectively reach people with accurate information, answers to their concerns, and effective support that makes participation in the census as easy as possible.

Lots of work is left to be done, but the CCC is scheduled to kick off these outreach and education strategies in early 2020 with a series of trainings and other meetings for everyone who will be participating in the Census outreach effort. If you’re interested in getting more involved, or learning more about the Complete Count Committee’s work, please email us at info@upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

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