It makes “census” to get an accurate head count.
Sorry. Best I could do. It’s just our way of saying the decennial enumeration is hot on our heels. Starting this month, homes across the country will begin receiving invitations to complete the 2020 census, with instructions on how to respond.
But many localities, including in Dauphin County, are making their own special efforts to encourage voluntary response, before an in-person census taker, beginning in May, does the real “knock-knock” on your door.
From city to countryside, partnerships are the key to reaching every resident in Dauphin County, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
What’s at stake if undercounted communities stay undercounted? About $2,000 in federal funds is lost per year for every person overlooked, according to a George Washington University study. Miss, say, 10,000 people, and that’s $20 million diverted from roads, schools, health facilities, housing and food aid in a single year.
There also are fewer heads counted when legislative and congressional lines are drawn, creating a representational imbalance in Harrisburg and Washington.
The Census Bureau has baseline population numbers, but forging those baselines into statistical data demands accurate counts, said Angela Gregg, Census Bureau partnership specialist within Dauphin County.
“For grant funding, you have to prove that you are servicing that population number in order to back up that the funding will be used in that area,” she said.
The numbers give communities and businesses demographic insights that inform planning for housing, commerce and other needs, said Harrisburg Planning Bureau Director Geoffrey Knight.
“Are large households growing? Are single households growing?” he said. “What does that mean for the type of housing we provide? What does that mean for economic development and for our transportation system?”
Dauphin County’s officially hard-to-count neighborhoods are in parts of Middletown and Harrisburg—Allison Hill and South Allison Hill, plus the blocks of Uptown just above Maclay Street. (Find them at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us and the www.census.gov Response Outreach Area Mapper, or ROAM.)
But a closer look shows other slow spots, including the Hershey area (all those transient medical students) and northern Dauphin County, said Steven B. Deck, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.
The Dauphin County commissioners tapped Deck to chair the county’s Complete Count Committee, a voluntary Census Bureau initiative meant to reach every pocket of every community.
Dauphin County fashioned its committee as a “facilitator,” said Deck.
“We’re not trying to do anything on our own,” he said. “The idea was to pull together a good group of organizations and municipalities to get the word out.”
So, there are townships and business groups; Latino organizations and the NAACP; government offices and libraries; faith institutions and colleges.
“The idea was to find groups that people would trust—that if they send out information saying that it’s safe to fill out the census form and why it’s important to fill it out, then they’re more prone to fill it out,” said Deck.
Community partners “are our trusted voices within the community to get the word out,” agrees Gregg. The partners also contribute ideas that help the bureau target its ad buys and media dollars.
Each Complete Count Committee member brings its own network. For instance, Tri County Community Action is partnering with the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness to reach the homeless population. Residents of every community, undercounted or not, should care, said Jennifer Wintermyer, Tri County Community Action’s executive director.
“It impacts how much federal funding is available for LIHEAP (heating assistance) and weatherization,” she said. “The Community Development Block Grant is an incredible pool of money for community resources and physical improvements. We all like to complain about our roads and congestion and bridges being safe. How the federal government determines where that money goes depends on how many people live here.”
Not to mention the vibrancy of congressional representation.
“If Pennsylvania loses congressional representation, then we have fewer people who know about us and care about us standing up and fighting for us in Washington, D.C.,” Wintermyer said.
Use Their Voice
In northern Dauphin County, a robust count will help fight the “big five” of rural challenges, said Bonnie Kent, Dauphin County operation manager and community liaison— hunger, homelessness, transportation, unemployment and health care. She is educating residents “on the whys and the how and the when and the where” of the census.
“I’m planning to cheerlead in northern Dauphin for everyone to be counted, knowing it’s going to have a great impact on our communities,” she said. “We just need to encourage people to use their voice to be counted.”
So, residents visiting the Northern Dauphin County Human Services Center for access to one of 14 human services are met with bonus census messages. Census information will be “visible in public places with high frequency,” such as the Friday night Gratz Crossroads Auction. Parents are being tapped through early childhood events and a support network. The region’s large Amish community is hearing the message through newsletters.
Like others, the city of Harrisburg is employing a “trust the messenger” strategy. Working with places of worship and other groups sends the message to the places where people congregate, instead of expecting them to show up for special events.
“It helps bring it back home a little bit more to the public when you’re hearing it in places and from people that you see on a daily or weekly basis,” said Knight.
Undercounts can result from language barriers, transience or even misunderstandings. Some people mistakenly believe that children and senior citizens aren’t counted.
“Everybody counts, so let’s count everybody,” said Wintermyer.
New this time is an online filing option, created to encourage “self-response,” the term for filing before the Census Bureau needs to send out enumerators. But community groups see a “significant barrier” among those who only access the internet by phone or lack broadband access or lack computer literacy, said Wintermyer.
“There’s a strong feeling that, with the modernization of the census, we’re going to have a strong undercount,” she said.
To avert that possibility, Tri County Community Action, the Northern Dauphin County Human Services Center and county libraries are among those groups offering free computer access in their offices.
“We are a safe place for folks to come and use internet access,” said Wintermyer. “If you’re here, we want you counted.”
As for concerns that the now-scuttled citizenship question could dampen turnout, Deck said, “I don’t doubt that that’s part of the heavy sales pitch.”
Wintermyer agrees the question remains a specter in fears of an undercount, along with concerns over confidentiality.
“That’s part of the message we’re trying to get to the community and community partners—that filling out the form is safe and confidential,” she said.
Gregg said that citizenship-question controversy has not been a hurdle.
“Everyone’s been great about that and realizing how important it is to respond,” she said. “We focus our goal around how safe it is and how important it is.”
City officials urge everyone in the Harrisburg region to “stand up and be counted,” especially because electoral district lines are drawn after the census is final, said Knight.
“The closer we get to a full and complete count of our communities, the better off we will all be,” he said.