Connecticut at forefront of local census outreach efforts

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Arixsa Vargas has lived and worked in the city’s South End all her life, but the 46-year-old said she’s never seen a census form.

“I figured if they never mailed it to me, it’s not that important,” said Vargas, owner of Maria’s Hair Styling Salon on South Main Street.

Connecticut receives about $10.7 billion yearly from the federal government to fund about 55 programs, from schools and roads, to school lunch and senior energy assistance, among others, said Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. She’s taken a leading role in organizing Connecticut’s census outreach effort.

Not only does the count determine how federal funds are divided, it’s used to determine how many seats each state has in Congress.

It’s also used by businesses contemplating a move or expansion, said Bysiewicz.

“The census is what determines distribution of federal resources and political representation,” Bysiewicz said.

That reality is what sparked political outcry when President Trump attempted to force in a question regarding citizenship, which was perceived as an effort to drive down participation among immigrant communities, Bysiewicz said. “There has been efforts to reduce benefits of federal programs and so the way to fight back is to show who we are as a state and country,” Bysiewicz said.

The state loses $2,900 for every individual not counted, Bysiewicz said.

That’s a very rough estimate, derived by a simple calculation of dividing annual federal grant funds by the state population. It’s not particularly precise, but does give a sense of the magnitude of loss for every uncounted person.

Mandated by the Constitution, census counts are undertaken every 10 years.

Connecticut and other states are taking the effort seriously.

New York’s legislature set aside $20 million for census outreach efforts, with New York City and nonprofits dedicated many millions more. New Jersey has set aside $9 million. That’s a little more than $1 in outreach for every person in New York and New Jersey.

CONNECTICUT’S LEGISLATURE has set aside $500,000, or about 14 cents per person. Nonprofits have volunteered at least $900,000 more. Connecticut is investing labor and sweat equity, launching a grassroots campaign last February. It’s formed more than 100 local “complete count committees” to get out word of the importance of participation.

Connecticut, along with Massachusetts, is at the forefront of localized organization around the 2020 census, said Jeff Behler, director of the New York region for the U.S. Census. His area stretches from Maine to New Jersey, along with Puerto Rico.

Much attention will be focused on “hard-to-count” areas, places with a high proportion of renters, non-English speakers, immigrants, low graduation rates, poverty and other factors that make them resistant to counting.

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-72nd District, heads up Waterbury’s Complete Count Committee. He’s reaching out to churches and medical centers, any place that might intersect with the city’s poor or immigrants.

Reyes said he’s worried about the Connecticut’s lackluster financial investment in outreach. He’s also worried about the migration of census forms online this year. It’s the first time the census is asking for responses online.

“That greatly concerns me in hard-to-count areas as they have not responded well to paper forms,” Reyes said. “I’m not sure how well they’ll respond to online forms. We are making assumptions they have computers and know how to do this.”

In 2020, residents will receive postcards asking them to go online and complete a census form. Those who don’t respond are supposed to receive a paper form in the mail. If they still don’t respond, one of thousands of part-time census representatives being hired in each state are supposed to show up at their door.

REYES’ DISTRICT COVERS the city’s center and South End, and includes census tracts that are among the hardest to count in Connecticut. Reyes cites language and cultural barriers. Many residents emigrated from countries where they developed a justified distrust of government, he said, and some are “undocumented.”

Reyes said he has a hard time convincing people of the fact information gathered by the census cannot legally be used to prosecute anyone.

“Given the climate in the country, it’s put an extra burden on myself advocated Census 2020,” Reyes said. “Some people trust nothing about government, not only undocumented people, but people who have been here a long time. I don’t even get a chance to explain it’s illegal to share that data with anyone.”

Vargas lives near Waterbury’s Hopeville Elementary School, in a South End census tract where more than 22% live below the poverty level and 44% of housing is rental. A quarter of people in that census tract are expected to not respond online or to the paper questionnaire, according to the Census Bureau.

The numbers are even worse in the neighboring census tract, where Vargas runs Maria’s Hair Styling on South Main St. There, 43.8% live below the poverty line and 35.9% are predicted to skip the census. That will require part-time agents of the census to visit seeking responses.

Pedro Ocasio, owner of La Borinquena Restaurant a couple doors down from Vargas’ salon, said he’s can’t blame immigrants for being fearful of interacting with the federal government given the recent rhetoric tone at the presidential level. He also thinks the area’s many working people are simply too overwrought to bother.

“I think maybe because a lot of people are working two or three jobs, it may be harder now because they are never home,” Ocasio said. “When they have a little bit of time they are not going to go online or fill anything out, they are just going to toss it in the garbage.”

Those that skip the census altogether might end up being counted, or partially so. The bureau uses area responses to estimate household makeup in residential units where responses have not been gathered. Still, the more guesses and fewer responses increase the risk an area will be undercounted and shortchanged, Behler said.

“If people choose not to be counted or feel they don’t matter in the count, it will adversely affect their community and state for the next 10 years,” Behler said.

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