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PSU enlists community leaders to help obtain an accurate count in 2020 Census
Author: Summer Allen
Posted: November 14, 2019
 From record distrust in government to the rollout of an internet response option, the 2020 census faces several unique challenges to ensuring a fair and accurate count.

To help communities across Oregon prepare for the census, Portland State University’s Population Research Center (PRC) hosted the “Making Oregon Count 2020” symposium on November 12. 

“We are here to make sure that everybody in our country is counted in the census, the bedrock of democracy,” said Jason Jurjevich, director of the PRC, in his opening remarks. 

The symposium emphasized the importance of the 2020 census, highlighted what individuals and groups can do to prepare for the census in their communities and set the stage to motivate counting efforts across Oregon more broadly.

The federal government takes a census of everyone living in the United States every 10 years. Besides being mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the census generates data that drives the spending of more than 900 billion dollars of federal funding each year on infrastructure, education and other vital programs. The census also determines congressional representation. 

Oregon has grown a lot since 2010, which makes it vitally important that there is a high turnout for the 2020 census. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum noted in opening remarks that almost 360,000 new Oregonians moved to the state between 2010 and 2018. Because of this growth, Oregon is likely to gain another seat in the House of Representatives and to receive increased federal funding—that is if its population is accurately represented in the census. 

“We are lucky to live in a state that people want to move to,” said Rosenblum. “It’s also true, however, that with growth comes challenges. A larger population means a larger need for services. This is why it’s simply essential that we count every Oregonian so we can maintain and hopefully increase those funds and the programs they support.”

Rosenblum emphasized that many factors make it more difficult for some people to fill out the census than others. This means that some groups tend to be underrepresented in the census. These groups include children under five, people of color, non-English speakers, rural residents, immigrants, non-citizens, low-income persons, renters and the homeless. 

One factor that represses census turnout is the fear that people may be targeted for the very information that the census is asking them to provide, such as their ethnicity or race. 

“We need to address those fears,” said Rosenblum. 

Addressing fear with education is vitally important because when traditionally underserved populations aren’t counted in the census, they miss out on receiving federal funding and congressional representation. “These inequities and injustices are the very inequities and injustices that we can combat by counting every Oregonian and getting the funding and representation that we need to support our people,” said Rosenblum. 

Besides the continuing need to reach hard-to-count populations, John H. Thompson, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, discussed some of the unique challenges for the 2020 census. For example, confusion about the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question may decrease turnout among people who mistakenly believe they will be asked about their citizenship status. There are other potential issues such as IT system readiness for administering the census via the internet, unsure funding for the census and the threat of a potential disinformation campaign.

“I think the biggest threat to a good census is going to be a disinformation campaign, and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be one,” said Thompson. “If you want to play with someone’s democracy, then you undermine the census because the census is the cornerstone to democracy.” He noted that people should combat disinformation that they hear about the census and report rumors to the U.S. Census Bureau (rumors@census.gov).

Thompson noted that the best way to get people to participate in the census is to tell them why their response is important, that it is safe to respond and that their responses will be confidential. He emphasized that people need to hear these messages from trusted local voices—not from Washington, D.C.

 Appropriately, the majority of the “Making Oregon Count 2020”  symposium was devoted to having leaders from different communities within Oregon discuss and share the best ways to motivate and mobilize people to fill out the census. 

 

This work started off with a panel discussion about how to engage hard-to-count communities, moderated by Lisa Bates, associate professor in PSU’s Toulan School of Urban Studies. 

Renate Ray Mayer of the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) talked about the importance of using trusted community leaders in the Black community to get the message out about the importance of the census. 

“My role is to make sure that every Black Oregonian has relevant info about the census; that they know how and when to take the census, and ultimately that they get counted,” she said.

Danielle Pacifico-Cogan of the Children’s Institute discussed the importance of advocating for the representation of children on the census. 

“Kids cannot advocate for themselves; they can’t fill out the census,” said Pacifico-Cogan. “When children do not get what they need, we know what happens.”

She noted that some parents, particularly those who are houseless or are non-citizens may be afraid to include their children’s information on the census. However, it is particularly important that children are accurately represented in this year’s census because it will determine how Oregon’s new Student Success Act is implemented. “We all have to be invested in this effort,” said Pacifico-Cogan.

Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett from We Count Oregon emphasized that it is important to see the census as an opportunity to improve the state. We Count Oregon is working with 13 partner organizations on an ambitious plan to train 10,000 people to make direct contact with 200,000 people from hard-to-count communities in 100 days to educate them about the importance of the census. 

“We have an opportunity to paint a new picture of Oregon, one that is inclusive and diverse,” said Tervalon-Garrett. “I feel like that’s an opportunity we could all get behind.”

Video recordings and notes from the symposium sessions will be available here.