Map of Omaha’s hard-to-count districts, census tracts with low census response rates, developed by the City University of New York’s Graduate Center’s Mapping Service.
Map of Omaha’s hard-to-count districts, census tracts with low census response rates, developed by the City University of New York’s Graduate Center’s Mapping Service.

By Chris Bowling

For all its importance, the census doesn’t top lists of issues eliciting fierce debate, fist pounding or fevered devotion. Though hundreds of individuals and organization partners across Nebraska have worked for months to ready the state for the decennial government survey that aims to count every person in the country, its selling points don’t raise eyebrows.

That is until you mention the millions of dollars at stake.

“When you throw numbers like that out there, that gets people’s attention,” said Vicki Quaites-Ferris, director of operations at the Empowerment Network in North Omaha which partnered with the Census Bureau as a community educator.

While every 10 years the census strives to give America a clear picture of who its citizens are, it also plays a key role in deciding who gets federal dollars and who doesn’t. An undercount of 1% in Nebraska could mean $40 million in losses per year, according to the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research.

They figure that number by taking the total federal dollars Nebraska received in 2016 and dividing it by the number of people in the state. That roughly comes out to  $2,096 lost every year when one person doesn’t fill out the census.

That money, which supports roads, schools, health care, public housing and much more, is of particular interest in communities that are historically hard-to-count, meaning their mail return late is lower than 73%. In Omaha, these areas are largely in North and South Omaha.

These communities often have high poverty rates, housing densities, numbers of children and minority populations. The latter is most striking as one in three African Americans and one in six Hispanics live in these areas in Nebraska.

Quaites-Ferris said getting a good count in these communities is vital because they have high need for dollars in economic and workforce development. Missing large swaths of people there can have disastrous consequences on the services those very same populations depend on.

“If those agencies are relying on state funding, and that funding is not there because we didn’t show a need,” she said, “then that’s a hindrance. And that barrier is a challenge to those agencies to stay afloat. And if they are not able to stay afloat, then what happens? They end up shutting the doors.”

Funding programs like Step Up Omaha!, Heartland Workforce Solutions, food pantries and housing grants all come to mind as good reasons to take the census, said Quaites-Ferris.

Disseminating information is left to volunteers in the form of Census Bureau partners, who specialize in mobilizing certain demographics, and complete count committees, representative groups that can spread the message.

Omaha has 11 complete count committees, some of which started meeting monthly in the summer of 2019 to begin planning and preparing for the census.

The formal introduction of these committees as well as earlier involvement with community partners have already set this census apart from 2010 said David Drozd, a research coordinator with UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

“It almost got lost in the shuffle [in 2010],” he said. “It was something that was supported but not necessarily promoted and organized in the way we’ve seen in 2020.”

In these meetings, committee members can discuss best ways to get information in front of people and connect the ideas to the people who can implement them. In a meeting for Omaha’s complete count committee on Feb. 19, Troy Anderson, deputy chief of staff in the Mayor’s Office, flicked through his email to get contacts for utility providers after an idea arose to include Census Bureau information in water bills.

Early on, the committees decided not to seek funding for their own advertising campaigns or to make Omaha-specific education materials. Rather, they wanted to play middle man between the census’ wealth of materials and community stakeholders. What they didn’t want to do was target any one area, be it hard to count or not.

“We didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket,” Anderson said. “We didn’t want to try and spend all our energy and effort focusing on a few strategy areas and miss out on the bigger picture.”

But some don’t know if that’s going to be effective. Erin Porterfield, executive director of Heartland Workforce Solutions and a member of Omaha’s complete count committee, wonders if they shouldn’t think more creatively than “dropping flyers from a helicopter.”

Even though the Census Bureau has a wealth of education documents and will spend $500 million on advertising across the United States, Porterfield thinks if there are communities the state traditionally misses, they may need non-traditional solutions to bring them into the fold.

“All the intent is good,” she said, “but it’s a lot of folks doing volunteer roles, and at least for me I don’t have the full information to tell me our bases are covered.”

Synergy between the complete count committees is also an issue many raise. Unlike most states, Nebraska does not have an official complete count committee, meaning there’s no official group organizing census action and no dedicated budget. Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed that bill last year, making Nebraska one of two states not to have an official complete count committee. Nonprofit Nebraska Counts did, however, step up as an unofficial census leader in the state, while other entities have provided funds, including the City of Omaha, which gave its complete count committee $30,000, Anderson said.

Some see that as a clear disadvantage when compared to states like California, which allocated $187 million, or New York City, which allocated $40 million. Even neighboring Colorado put down $6 million, and Utah set aside $1 million for the first time ever to address the undercount of children. 

“While the state is supportive and wants to make sure we get an accurate count,” Quaites-Ferris said, “I think it would have been even better to tie some dollars to that so the census work being done currently is at a level that other states are at.”

This comes at a time where the Census Bureau has already experienced a political tug-of-war with the Trump administration over budgets and a potential citizenship question. The latter, although not on the 2020 census, has raised controversy, particularly in Hispanic communities in a time when anxieties about deportations and Immigration Customs Enforcement raids are high.

Complete count committees are getting the word out that the information given to the census is private and only used to produce statistics. In addition, of the Census Bureau’s advertising budget, $50 million is devoted to Hispanic communities, the most of any minority group. Violation of confidentiality can result in a prison sentence of up to five years, a fine of $250,000 or both.

However, people realize that’s not going to completely assuage fears, especially considering a majority of Americans still believe the question will be asked, according to a Pew Research Center study. For her part, Porterfield thinks it will be a hard hurdle to clear.

“I can’t help but expect that there continues to be worry about that,” she said. “One part of our government protects us, one part of our government looks to find us and separate our families and throw us over the border.”

But when it comes down to it, Drozd, a professional who works with census and similar data for a living, said it’s going to be hard to say what the net effect will be. Drozd said there are so many factors at play in hard-to-count communities that the best they can do is spread the word as far as possible.

After that it’s between the individual and whether they choose to fill out the 10-question survey.

“How effective that is, there’s no way to really know,” he said. “But it’s something. And at least the cities, organization, communities feel like they’ve been able to participate.”

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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