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Editorial: Making census 2020 count in our communities

An accurate count in the census will factor into representation and funding of vital programs.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Following Tuesday’s oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, reports found it likely the court’s five-member conservative majority will side with the Trump administration’s intention to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census that begins in less than a year.

That’s despite lower court rulings that found that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated procedures in requiring the addition of the citizenship question and that its inclusion would be unconstitutional because it could negatively affect the mandated once-every-10-years enumeration of every person living in the U.S.

Those concerns were based on earlier findings by the U.S. Census Bureau, as it prepares for the 2020 count, that including the question on census forms was likely to discourage certain populations from participating in the census, causing a potential undercount of 6.5 million people.

Required by the Constitution, the census is expected to count every person in the U.S. — regardless of citizenship, residency or lack of official status — in order to determine the number of congressional representatives for each state, each state’s allocation in the Electoral College, as well as guide the drawing of boundaries for congressional, legislative and local government districts.

Following the 2010 census, for example, a shift in U.S. population meant a 10th member of Congress for Washington state and fairer representation in Congress.

The data also are necessary in allocating federal funding to the states; based on census numbers, $16.7 billion was allocated in 2016 to Washington state to support programs including Medicare and Medicaid, student loans, food stamps, highway and transportation funding, free and reduced-priced school meals, low-income housing assistance and tax credits and more.

And all of it is determined by the head count in each state. An undercount in one state doesn’t change the amount of nationwide taxpayer support for those programs — now about $880 billion a year — it just means less support among the actual population in a state, and a potential misdirection of funds meant for their intended purposes.

The census also provides crucial data to governments and businesses as they develop plans to serve communities and customers.

Which is why public officials in Snohomish County and its cities have formed a Complete Count Committee and have started work to educate their communities about the census, encourage their participation and make sure everyone is counted. In coming months, that committee will work with local nonprofits, service organizations, churches and faith groups and others in those efforts.

Part of that work will include cooperation with a philanthropic fund — the Washington Census Equity Fund — which is raising money and will distribute grants throughout the state to help in planning and operation of education, outreach and technical assistance ahead of the 2020 census.

With or without the citizenship question, the census faces challenges in getting an accurate count, said Vanesa Guiterrez, community relations manager with the county executive’s office, during a meeting last week of city and county leaders with The Herald Editorial Board.

One important change: Next year’s census will be largely completed online; 95 percent of households will get an invitation asking them to complete the questionnaire by computer or smartphone. Others will receive a mail-in form or will be visited in person by a census taker. But the online participation limits itself to those with adequate internet access and the familiarity to complete an online questionnaire.

Residents in certain rural areas can be difficult to reach; east Snohomish County is considered a “hard to count” community, for example. And certain populations within cities also can shy from the census or can go uncounted, including racial minorities, non-English speakers low-income families, immigrants, those experiencing homelessness and Native Americans.

Even counting children can lead to confusion, particularly among families where kids split their lives between two or more households. The Census Bureau estimates that as many as 1 million kids under 5 years of age — 5 percent — went uncounted in the 2010 census. (To answer who should count kids in a family, the bureau advises counting children in the household where they will be on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.)

Other respondents may be simply mistrustful of government or — in an age of anxiety over scams and breaches of personal data — wary of sharing their personal information.

The Census Bureau confirmed those fears in a report released earlier this year on potential barriers and public attitudes to the 2020 census. Among the survey’s findings:

There’s more concern among racial minorities that their responses to the census won’t be kept confidential, even though the bureau by law must protect the anonymity of personal data.

Among Asians, 42 percent said they were extremely or very concerned their answers would not be kept confidential; 38 percent of blacks and 35 percent of Hispanics shared in that concern, compared to 24 percent of white respondents.

Similar percentages of racial minorities were concerned their answers to the census would be used against them: 41 percent of Asians were either extremely or very concerned, while 35 of blacks and 32 percent of Hispanics were extremely or very concerned. Only 16 percent of whites share those levels of concern.

Those concerns won’t be allayed by a question inquiring about the citizenship of a respondent or her or his family members.

Still, the task remains to encourage all to respond to the census and be counted, because the next opportunity won’t come along for another 10 years.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misspelled Vanesa Guiterrez’s name.

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