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2020 Census Concerns, Strategies Get Airing at Town Hall Meeting

  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- How do you get people to participate in the 2020 census?

    Television and radio spots. Laptops in family centers for filling out census forms. Hotlines, knocking on doors and educating children about the importance of being counted.

    These were just some of the ideas for boosting census participation panelists shared at a town hall meeting at the Council of the Great City Schools’ 63rd Annual Fall Conference. Moderated by NPR national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang, the panel included leaders from big-city school districts; a representative from the U.S. Census Bureau; and advocates for immigrants, children, and people of color. The panelists agreed that increased participation in the census is of paramount concern, and that special focus needs to be on these demographic groups.

    Early in the discussion, Wang and the panel addressed the issue of adding a citizenship question to the census form, which the Trump Administration has proposed. Controversy over the issue has dominated the news this past year, with opponents to it arguing that the question would tamp down census participation by noncitizens and even new citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court in June blocked plans to include a citizenship question. (Read the Council’s amicus curiae brief against adding a citizenship question) Town Hall moderator Hansi Lo Wang

    “In a nutshell, there will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census forms,” Wang said. Several panelists said the possibility of the question on the form – and the motives behind them – had already had a chilling effect on the chances of participation within the immigrant population and also had added to African-Americans’ long-standing suspicions of the census count.

    “The damage has been done,” said Lizette Escobedo, director of the national census program for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Education Fund. “There’s an overwhelming number of folks who believe that the citizenship question will be asked and … who believe undocumented folks in their households should not, in fact, be counted,” she said.

    Escobedo suggested that teachers, who are among the “most trusted messengers” in the Latino community, could serve an important role in allaying parents’ concerns.

    She also advised attendees that NALEO has a bilingual hotline and is working with Spanish-language media to counter misinformation and disinformation, and to assure the community “that their data is safe and confidential and will not be used to target them, or for any type of ICE raid.”

    Michelle Elison, representing her colleagues at the U.S. Census Bureau, emphasized that they “really do want to count every single person,” including undocumented immigrants, because a true count is essential for distribution of federal monies. She said hard-to-count groups include people who rent, college students, foreign-born populations and the elderly.

    She noted, however, that children 0 to 4 years old represent “the largest under-counted age population, and the second largest is children aged 5 to 9,” a factor that affects education funding.

    Deborah Stein, network director for the Partnership for America’s Children, cited research showing immigrants, even those with legal status and those living far from the border, fear “someone would come and take their young child away.”

    To reassure those concerned about participating in the census, Stein noted that there are safeguards against disclosure of the information. Any census worker, current or retired, who releases individual information faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $8 million.

    Her group supports an initiative called Count All Kids, aimed at ensuring that children ages 5 and under are counted when their parents or guardians fill out the census form. The countallkids.org website has data, tool kits and webinars.

    Black immigrant groups also need to be convinced to participate, said Jeri Green, the National Urban League’s senior advisor for the 2020 census. The league is holding workshops across the country in areas with vulnerable populations. Green cited research showing the black population has “a greater sense of fear of reprisal when participating in the census.” It is important, she said, “to tell them that it’s safe.”


    Urban School Districts Get the Word Out

    School officials from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the School District of Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Unified School District shared with conferees their efforts to publicize the 2020 census.

    Plans in Cleveland call for the launch of television and radio ad spots in January, and a door-to-door information campaign. Teachers also will offer information at parent-teacher conferences.

    “A major part of our work in Cleveland is [asking,] how do we make sure that we build that collective trust, to convince people to participate,” said Trent Mosley, the district’s chief of engagement.

    In Philadelphia, plans are to “engage our teachers and principals to be primary messengers, since they hold a place of trust with our families, especially those we know might be reticent, anxious or even frightened to participate,” chief of staff Naomi Wyatt said.

    A key part of the effort is to educate students on the importance of the census – making them “census champions,” according to Wyatt. The idea is that the children will carry the message, “Please count me. I want to be counted,” to their parents.  

    Los Angeles has a multifaceted effort underway, with state and philanthropic funding. Their plan includes workshops and awareness materials in hard-to-count communities. The district will send texts and emails related to the census once it starts, and will tout Chromebooks in family centers as a way to participate.

    “We’ve put together a public service announcement that tells the story of how Census 2020 applies to Los Angeles Unified,” said Antonio Plascencia Jr., interim director for the Office of Parent & Community Services. The PSA will be issued in six languages.

    There also will be an effort to encourage families to complete the questionnaire promptly. “That, essentially, will keep someone from the U.S. Census Bureau from knocking on your door,” Plascencia said.

    “This is really the civil rights fight of our time,” said Escobedo. “There has been a huge effort to make sure that Latinos aren’t counted in this census, that they’re left off, that they’re made invisible. Our job … is to make sure they’re seen and counted.”