More than a fifth of La Plata County residents are unlikely to respond to the upcoming census, but a core group of about 20 organizations is working to ensure hard-to-count groups, such as immigrants and college students, are reached.
A complete count of all county residents ensures local communities receive their fair share of the billions in federal funds for education, food assistance, housing, senior services and other programs, said Tim Walsworth and Heather Otter, co-chairs of the La Plata County Complete Count Committee. The committee includes nonprofits, local governments, Fort Lewis College, Durango Public Library and other community groups.
The 2020 census marks the first time the survey has been done mostly online, and residents can expect to receive a postcard in March inviting them to take the census electronically.
“It’s 10 questions. It takes approximately 10 minutes, and it affects the next 10 years,” Otter said.
In 2016, census data guided the distribution of about $13 billion through 55 federal programs throughout Colorado, according to a report by the George Washington Institute for Public Policy.
“There are a lot of ways that census data impacts our communities that people may not be familiar with,” Otter said.
For example, census data helps determine how tax dollars will be spent on the roads and bridges that everyone depends on, she said.
During recent American Community Surveys conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau, the highest response rate in La Plata County among its 10 census tracks was about 80% and the lowest was about 65%, said Heather Hawk, Complete Count Committee member and Early Childhood Council of La Plata County executive director.
“We have the potential to undercount based on our track record,” she said.
The Associated Press predicts that based on census data, 21% of La Plata County residents will not respond.
Some of the groups at risk for not being counted are immigrants, renters, college students, residents living in group housing and children younger than 5 years old, Hawk said.
The council is working on reaching families to make sure they understand the importance of including their children in the count because census data guides spending on services for young children, such as Head Start, she said.
Last year, there was some national concern immigrants might be deterred from participating in the census because a citizenship question was expected to be on the survey. The Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question last summer.
Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center is incorporating census materials and outreach into all of its ongoing programs, such as monthly immigrant community events and educational workshops to help educate the immigrant community about the survey, said Matt Karkut, executive director of the nonprofit.
Within the immigrant community, there is misinformation about the census that the proposed citizenship questions likely created, he said.
“Many people do not understand what the census is, why it is important or why they should participate,” he said. “Some undocumented community members are afraid to answer the census because they think doing so will place their name on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and raise their risk of being arrested.”
La Plata Family Centers Coalition is also helping with census outreach by distributing information about it to families that coalition staff work with, said Mariel Balbuena, executive director of the group. Some coalition staff members work with families in their homes, including immigrant and Spanish-speaking residents, and establish strong relationships with them, she said.
“We are basically passing on the message and encouraging people to take the survey because they trust us,” she said.
Fort Lewis College plans to work directly with the U.S. Census Bureau to count students living on campus to ensure they are included, said Cullen Green, coordinator of operations in the student housing office.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is working to prepare for the census as well because it affects the distribution of federal funds that benefit the tribe and tribal membership through public policy and housing, education, transportation, employment and health care programs, said Lindsay Box, a spokeswoman for the tribe, in an email to The Durango Herald.
The tribe is also working to identify possible kinks or concerns with the online survey, she said.
“We look forward to assisting our tribal membership in filling out their census in the various options made available to them,” she said.
Residents working with community groups interested in helping the Complete Count Committee can contact Walsworth or Otter at email@example.com or TimW@downtowndurango.org.