The U.S. Census Bureau has recommended the town of Essex form a committee to help engage traditionally hard-to-reach populations in next year’s census tally after estimating the town’s population could otherwise be undercounted by 14 percent.
The decennial census count is a constitutionally-mandated head count of everyone who lives in the United States. It’s used to determine apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, define legislative and school districts, inform redistricting efforts and direct an estimated $880 billion in yearly federal funding to local and state governments.
The state of Vermont receives about $2.5 billion of that money every year, which based on the state’s population of about 623,000 works out to be roughly $4,000 per person, according to Bob Stock, a Vermont-based Partnership Specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Much of that money goes toward programs that impact “the most vulnerable of our population,” Stock said, such as Medicaid, SNAP, student lunches and Section 8 housing, among others.
Based on an estimated undercount of 14 percent in Essex, Stock said the impact “would work out to be a little over $12 million a year” over the next decade.
Enter these so-called Complete Count committees, which are comprised of community leaders with some connection to these hard-to-count populations: the homeless, single parents with young children, recent immigrants and people who have English as a second language, among others.
According to the Census Bureau, members of the count committees typically range from leaders in education, business, healthcare, religion or other community organizations. Stock said in Essex, that could include a representative from the refugee resettlement program, or someone from the area housing authority.
Stock said members of the committee can help the Census Bureau determine where these hard-to-reach populations live and decide how to best encourage them to participate in the census.
Stock guessed the committee would likely meet three or four times prior to the start of census in June 2020 so that everyone is on the same page on the process. He will then work with the individual committee members and focus on their specific constituencies.
Stock also used his time before the selectboard to give a quick recruitment pitch, noting the government will be hiring more than 350,000 people to perform the census, including 2,000 workers in Vermont – a difficult task given the state’s low unemployment rate.
Municipal Manager Evan Teich said the upcoming census will be his third in local government. He stressed the importance of getting as many people counted as possible.
“I know what happens when people are undercounted and you try to get federal funds or other funds for programs, it may not be there when you need it,” he said. Town staff planned to reach out to various community members to form the count committee.
Stock confirmed information shared with the Census Bureau is confidential and will not be shared with local, state or federal authorities.
“Some of these agencies have come after the data, but … they don’t get it. Never have, never will,” he said.
The question of confidentiality has taken on an added importance in recent years as some states and cities push back against the Trump Administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census survey.
Administration officials say the question was added to collect more detailed data to help enforce part of the Voting Rights Act, but critics say it will discourage noncitizens from taking part in the census, jeopardizing the accuracy of the count and thus threatening states with high non-citizen populations from receiving the appropriate amount of federal funding.
Census Bureau research estimates that more than 6 million people will not respond to the survey if the question is included.
Three federal judges have ruled against the question, setting up a legal battle culminating this week with oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, which began on Tuesday.
Stock didn’t share his personal opinion on the question. But he did emphasize the importance of an accurate count, noting there’s only one opportunity every 10 years.
“Then you live with it until you take another shot at it,” he said.