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Connecticut Factors In 'Trust' To Avoid Undercount In 2020 Census

Vanessa de la Torre
Connecticut Public Radio
Michelle Riordan-Nold of the Connecticut Data Collaborative talks on Tuesday about areas of Connecticut that were undercounted in the last Census.

On one side of the room was a scrolling slideshow of maps. Connecticut cities looked like they were stained with red blots — the red being an indicator of how hard it was to get a response from households during the last Census.

“Just to give you an idea, there’s 40 Census tracts in Hartford,” said Michelle Riordan-Nold, executive director of the Connecticut Data Collaborative. “And in 2010, 36 of those Census tracts were identified as Hard to Count.”

The next decennial survey isn’t until 2020. But on Tuesday in downtown Hartford, representatives from the Census Bureau, local and state government, and community groups got together to jump-start their outreach plans to get every resident counted.

It won’t be easy. Renters, people of color and immigrants are among the groups that have historically been undercounted or “Hard to Count,” meaning they are less likely to return the Census form that is intended to count every living person in the U.S.

And now with the government planning to ask a controversial question about citizenship status on the 2020 Census, a concern loomed over Tuesday’s kickoff: How to ease skepticism among residents who were already wary of the government’s intentions with the data?

“I personally believe that that was included, partly, as a scare tactic,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said. “We cannot let it succeed.”

Connecticut is part of a multi-state coalition that is suing the federal government to try to block the citizenship question from appearing on the final Census form. Critics of the question say it will dissuade undocumented immigrants from responding to the Census and, in turn, disenfranchise cities and towns with big immigrant populations.

“The Census helps determine the amount of funding that comes from the federal government for education, for housing, for transportation,” Bronin said. So when there’s an undercount in Hartford, he said that has consequences on “the daily lives of our residents.”

According to an analysis from George Washington University, Census data factors into $8 billion in federal funding that Connecticut gets a year for Medicaid, highway construction, housing vouchers, school lunches and other major programs, said Tyler Kleykamp, the state’s chief data officer.

Overall, 79 percent of state households mailed back the questionnaire during the 2010 Census.

Jeff Behler, a regional director for the Census Bureau, said it would be illegal for Census employees to share a respondent’s private information. But he acknowledged the fears over the citizenship question, and said in the past, people have been able to skip a particular question on the Census and still be counted.

But Census officials would still like the full questionnaire to be filled out in 2020, Behler said, and they think they can accomplish that with a strategy discussed Tuesday: Partnering with trusted community groups or leaders who would encourage residents to participate, whether it’s through a barbershop chat or a church sermon that ties into the Census.    

“When we think of those communities that maybe they don’t trust the government — they think we’re going to take their data and give it to some other law enforcement agency — we find out who is their trusted voice,” Behler said. “Maybe it’s their church pastor. So we have an event at their church. And on Sunday, the pastor’s talking about how Mary and Joseph were going to Bethlehem to be counted.”

Connecticut residents should expect to get their Census forms in 15 months. For the first time, people can fill out their questionnaire online or over the phone, where it will be offered in a dozen different languages in addition to English. The mail-in option is still around.

People who do not respond can anticipate a Census worker knocking on their door in spring 2020.

Vanessa de la Torre is executive editor of the New England News Collaborative, a regional hub of nine public media stations producing news and in-depth storytelling throughout New England. Previously, Vanessa was a reporter for Connecticut Public and the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering issues of race, identity and culture. Before joining the public media world, Vanessa wrote for newspapers such as the Hartford Courant, where her investigative storytelling on Hartford education won regional and national awards. She also was part of the Courant team that was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. Vanessa grew up in El Centro, Calif., a desert town near the U.S.-Mexico border, and is a graduate of Princeton University. She received her master's degree from Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism.

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