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Local officials ramp up engagement efforts ahead of 2020 census


DTH Photo Illustration. Undercounting in the 2020 census may seriously impact Orange County results. The numbers will help state, local and national officials plan for future development. Children under 6, ethnic minorities, renters and migrants often do not participate in the census often due to reasons such as the fear of what the government will do with the information and lack of funding. 

The U.S. Census Bureau is working to gather a complete count for this year’s census due April 1, and is recruiting census takers to assist with engagement in the population survey. 

An accurate census plays a major role in securing funds for relevant local causes including health care, education, food and nutrition programs, housing and child care.

"Local revenue comes primarily from property, sales and other taxes, as well as charges and fees,” Catherine Lazorko, communications manager for the Town of Chapel Hill, said in an email. “State and federal government agencies support our activities through a complex web of intergovernmental grants. Federal funds in 2019 amounted to about $9.5 million."

But Jessica Stanford, a researcher with the Carolina Population Center, said census data is used for more than just securing and allocating funds. 

"A lesser-known use of census data is market and labor force research," she said. "Businesses use these estimates to determine where to locate their next corporate HQ or factory. Using this data, economic development groups in North Carolina have been able to advertise the state’s fast population growth and skilled workforce to new companies, bringing additional wealth and revenue to the state."

According to the Town, each individual who goes uncounted in the census results in a loss of $1,800 in Town funds. Chapel Hill Town Council member Karen Stegman said in an email that this money is composed of $1,600 of federal funding and $200 of state funding.

Stegman said the Census Bureau relies on the assistance of local community partners like the Orange County 2020 Complete Count Committee (CCC) to increase awareness and motivate residents to respond to the 2020 census. 

“Committee members represent a broad spectrum of government and community leaders from education, business, nonprofits and other community organizations," Stegman said. "The CCC will develop and implement a 2020 Census awareness campaign to encourage residents to respond to the 2020 Census."

The Town has both staff and Council representation on the Orange County CCC. 

Renee Price, vice chair of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, is a member of this year’s CCC, and has personal experience as a census taker.

“One of my first jobs ever was going door to door when I was young,” she said.

Last year, Price was at a conference for the National Association of Counties that promoted the establishment of local Complete Count Committees’s. Upon her return to Chapel Hill, she successfully petitioned the Board’s involvement in the effort toward a complete count, an initiative the county has been previously involved with.

On a national level, the census determines the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and influence in the Electoral College. Price said that based on this year’s census predictions, North Carolina is expected to gain at least one more congressional seat.

Price said one of the major changes associated with this year’s census engagement efforts compared to those in the past is the recent emphasis on technology.

“This will be the first time where you can fill the census out online, and it is shorter with fewer questions," she said. "That raises a challenge for those without internet access or computers. We’ve had to set up complete count sites, so opening community centers for people to fill out the forms online if they want to."

Price said another challenge associated with this year’s census is a lack of trust, particularly within low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. This stemmed from the citizenship question that was almost added to the census.

“When you realize the influx of immigrants we’ve had in recent years here, particularly coming from Central and South America, we have a lot of Spanish speaking or other indigenous languages coming here and dealing with raids from (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” Price said. “We have to step up our efforts in telling people that this information is confidential.”

Lazorko pointed out a more student-oriented challenge associated with completing the census form: counting those living off-campus. 

“Our concern with reaching off-campus college students is that completing the census form will take a bit of coordination," she said. "The letters/invitations to complete the census are sent to households and not addressed to individuals. If several renters are sharing a residence, someone needs to take the lead to complete the census questionnaire.”

Price said she has a unique solution to this issue.

“One idea that we’ve floated is to do something, I don’t know if it’s been fully fleshed out, to see if we could create like a census pizza party kind of night for off-campus students," Price said. "Maybe we could get the pizzerias involved to give a discount and put information on the pizza boxes." 

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Other outreach and engagement efforts in Orange County and Chapel Hill include a "Be Counted" site launch party on March 16, census block parties for neighborhoods with traditionally undercounted populations and posters in Town facilities and Chapel Hill Transit buses.

For more information on local census efforts, visit the Town's website


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