Our Voices Count: Why the 2020 Census is our Most Urgent Community Challenge

Feb 24, 2020

This spring, a major civic event will take place that has a significant impact on Fairfield County’s next decade – the 2020 census. Ensuring an accurate and complete census is one of the most serious challenges we face as a community. FCCF President & CEO Juanita James recently sat down with three guests to discuss this critical effort: Susan Bysiewicz, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and Chair of the Connecticut Complete Count Committee; Terri Ann Lowenthal, a leading expert on the census; and Barbara Lopez, director of Make The Road Connecticut, a nonprofit that supports low-income and working class Latinos in Bridgeport and Hartford.

James: Lieutenant Governor, as Chair of Connecticut’s Complete Count Committee you work with hundreds of community leaders from every sector. Why should residents care about being counted in the census?

Bysiewicz: Connecticut receives almost $11 billion annually in federal funding based on how many people live in our state. For every person we undercount, we lose $2,900 in funding for 55 important federal programs that every community uses, including Medicaid, SNAP, Head Start, school lunch programs, energy assistance, student loans, highway and transportation funding and many more.

Connecticut is also a “donor state,” in that we give more to the federal government than we get back in funding. So it’s very important we count each person to get the federal funding we deserve.

The census is also really important for representation, both in our state legislature and United States Congress. We’ll redistrict in 2022 based on how many people are counted in our state in 2020. So we want to make sure every person is counted, only once and in the right place.

James: When will the 2020 census start, and how can people participate?

Bysiewicz: People will receive a postcard in the mail in March 2020 with information on how to fill out the census online.

Households that haven’t completed an online census response by April will get a paper form sent to their home they can return by mail. Or if it’s easier to call an 800 number, there will be information on how to do that.

If by May none of those forms have been filled out, you will likely have an enumerator knock at your door asking for information. The Census Bureau will hire more than 21,000 enumerators across the state, and folks can apply now on the federal government census website for jobs that will start in March or April.

Lowenthal: Since not everyone has access to reliable Internet or is comfortable filling out forms online, it’s important to note that all households can choose to respond by phone through toll-free numbers in English plus 12 other languages, or by using a traditional paper form.

James: What are the biggest challenges Connecticut faces in getting a complete census count?

Bysiewicz: In Connecticut, about a quarter of our state is in a hard-to-count area. This could be a city with a lot of multifamily dwellings or apartments, where people move frequently; or a rural area, where homes are in places that are difficult to get to.

Lowenthal: Another challenge is the climate of fear among immigrants in the wake of rhetoric and policies from some civic leaders. This could depress participation from immigrant households, regardless of the legal status of family and household members. The public controversy over the administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the census at the 11th hour heightened that fear.

Now, let’s be very clear: there will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census form, thanks to a Supreme court ruling. But regrettably, a lot of damage was already done and it will take direct contact from trusted voices in the immigrant community to convince people it’s both safe and important to be counted. My colleague Barbara is one of those trusted messengers.

James: Barbara, FCCF has supported Make the Road Connecticut’s efforts through our civic education grant program. Why was it important for your organization to get involved, and how are you conducting this education?

Lopez: The census is about building power for our families, for now and for future generations. Data collected in the census will be used for the next 10 years, so we won’t get another chance to get it right until 2030.

We believe our voices matter, our voices count. So our census education campaign is simple: it’s called “Our Friends and Family Count” – “Nuestros Amigos y Familiares Cuentan.”

The first thing we did was invite a census outreach official to Bridgeport to talk to people in the language they were comfortable in – mostly in Spanish, sometimes in English. People got to ask all the questions they wanted, in our space. The second thing we did was create educational and outreach materials in Spanish.

The third and most important thing we did is invest time on leadership development, because we believe in educating our community on what it means to get everybody counted. It’s powerful when people talk to friends when they’re dropping off kids at school, hanging out at barbecues, or working. Training neighbors to be community leaders means they have access to people who would not trust a stranger at their door.

We are working with these leaders to design pledges specific to our community. We want to train them to say, “Hey, this is why the 2020 census is important, this is how it’s going to impact you. Can we get a pledge for you to be counted when something comes in the mail, or somebody comes to your door? Or come into our office and do it online.” At the end of the day, it’s about people power.

James: Have people’s early opinions about the census started to change as a result of your work?

Lopez: At first, people were hesitant. There was a lot of confusion about the citizenship question and what I meant when talked about fighting systemic oppression and how it trickles down in Bridgeport. There were some heated conversations with people who would say “Things don’t change in Bridgeport. So why even bother?” There were conversations around, “Does it really impact me if the library’s open, or how many people get to represent us in Hartford?” And some folks don’t trust the government.

So getting past those conversations was the first step. Then people started attending meetings and talking to each other, and slowly started understanding the importance. Looking at it through the lens of the 2020 presidential elections is one way folks are connecting to, “Oh, it really does matter if we’re counted. It does matter how the districts are redistricted, and to have political power.”

So, people are excited about being counted and are asking when the pledge is going to roll out. Our young people are very excited about being engaged, and how that will impact them when they’re adults.

James: Thanks to all of you for your work to make this a stronger democracy. We encourage everyone to support census education efforts in your community.

Subscribe to our Fairfield County Thrives podcast to listen to the full conversation on Complete Count 2020 efforts, and to hear other stories of impact in our region.