EVERETT — For those trying to get every person in Snohomish County tallied in the 2020 Census, politics are complicating things.
Members of minority communities worry about sharing their personal information at a time when hate crimes have risen. Undocumented immigrants fear their responses could lead to deportation. People from rural areas ask why they should entrust their stats to a government led by a president who was just impeached. And questions still swirling around foreign interference in U.S. elections have given rise to jitters that Americans’ privacy may be at risk as the U.S. Census Bureau conducts its first-ever primarily online count.
County Community Relations Manager Vanesa Gutierrez, who leads local census outreach efforts, said she’s heard the gamut of concerns from residents about the 10-question survey, which they’ll soon be asked to fill out online.
“Folks are nervous. And I cannot blame them for that,” Gutierrez said.
But she’s assured that their answers will remain confidential. By law, the Census Bureau cannot release identifiable information about individuals, households or businesses — even to law enforcement agencies. Plus, there’s no citizenship question on the form.
She allayed the fears of one undocumented resident by pointing out that the woman shared more information on her Facebook profile than what’s captured by the survey.
The Census Bureau is also taking steps to safeguard responses entered online from hackers and other cyber threats, she said.
Due to funding strains facing the federal agency, local governments have had to take on a bigger role with outreach efforts this year than in the past — particularly in attempting to reach “hard-to-count” communities, such as racial minorities and LGBTQ folks, Gutierrez said.
“We were very nervous about this. We wanted to have our community count. Because we know how important it is,” she said.
The results are used to allot the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the 50 states. The data also determines how more than $675 billion in funding, from food stamps to Medicaid and Medicare dollars, are distributed across the country. Every person who isn’t counted in the census means a loss of an estimated $2,000 from the federal or state government, according to the county.
Gutierrez has convened a team of more than a dozen organizations to encourage people to participate. Using $225,000 in grant money from the state, those groups have recruited trusted community leaders — known as “promotoras” in Latin and Hispanic communities — to emphasize the count’s importance.
“We tried to have everyone involved at the table,” she said. “They are the experts when it comes to delivering the message to their communities.”
Distrust in government is the biggest hurdle that some organizers have faced in encouraging participation in the census, said Ben Young, director of grants and marketing for the local Communities of Color Coalition. The rhetoric and policies coming from President Trump’s administration have only exacerbated that wariness among the immigrants and refugees that the coalition supports, he said.
“They see government as not going to do right by them,” Young said. “It may be because of the government that they left. It may be because the treatment that the present government has given them.”
Adding to the list of outreach challenges is this year’s transition to a mostly-online census, Gutierrez said.
Though the Census Bureau is encouraging residents to respond online, the survey can also be taken by phone. Those who don’t submit answers by April 8 will receive a paper copy in the mail.
Many people in the county don’t have internet access. From 2014 to 2018, 8.5% of county households had either no home internet subscription or dial-up only, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
At the national level, critics have expressed concerns that the bureau isn’t prepared for the switch to online.
A February report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found deficiencies in the Census Bureau’s efforts to address potential cybersecurity risks and ensure that its internet systems are ready for prime time. In June, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General reported “fundamental security deficiencies” in the cloud-based IT systems that will be used to support the census.
In a recent blog post, Census Bureau officials said there are systems and contingencies in place to ensure that the website will continue to run, even if unforeseen circumstances occur. The census has built and tested two secure data collection systems that can be substituted for one another, wrote Census Bureau directors Steven Dillingham and Ron Jarmin. Plus, responses are fully encrypted when they’re entered, transmitted and stored, adding another layer of online security, the post says.
“They are doing a lot of work to make sure that the technology that they are providing and the websites that they are providing are safe,” Gutierrez said of the Census Bureau.