When Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student Denise Jimenez attended an informational session about the 2020 census last autumn, she was intrigued to learn about the impact census numbers have on redistricting and political representation. But she's also become concerned about the census' impact on more practical matters.
"There's $675 billion that (gets distributed) to the state, county, and communities, and census data helps decide what you use that money for. There are some road issues and potholes in Ypsilanti, and as a student who is a commuter, I would like to see a bit of that changed," Jimenez says.
That initial meeting led Jimenez to become the student census coordinator on EMU's campus and help get the word out about why her fellow students should participate.
"We need our voices to be heard, and that should be very important to students," Jimenez says. "We're all about change, and we need to start looking at the census as something that will create change."
While every community has much to gain or lose based on participation in the 2020 census, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have special challenges, ranging from low participation in the 2010 census to the number of renters, college students, Latinx residents, and other typically under-represented demographics.
Looking back at census 2010
It's estimated that Michigan will lose about $1,800 in federal program funding each year for each state resident who isn't counted in this year's census. Census numbers are also used to determine how much representation each state gets. The 2010 census showed a large enough population drop that Michigan lost a legislator, with the state's U.S. House delegation decreasing from 15 to 14.
"There's been talk about whether we'll lose another seat after this census or not," says Teresa Gillotti, director of Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED). "Having a good count could save representation in the federal government, and that's a big deal."
Peter Lindeman, OCED communications and policy specialist, says Michigan as a whole "did pretty well" in terms of response rate in 2010, coming in fifth in the country. Additionally, Washtenaw County's response rate was in line with the state's average response rate.
"But if you look at specific pockets within the county, Ypsi had one of the lower response rates, both the city and the township," Lindeman says. The township's response rate was around 76% and the city's was 69%.
Gillotti says residents ages 18-24, especially college students, tend to be under-counted. Other subgroups that get under-counted in Ypsi and Ypsi Township include lower-income households, immigrant communities, and renters. County officials are working with landlords and housing commissions to get the word out to the rental population, and Gillotti says EMU is "taking the lead" with the college-aged demographic.
Increasing participation in census 2020
In addition to those efforts, the Washtenaw County Complete Count Commission funded a mini-grant program for projects that aimed to increase local participation in the 2020 census, with a focus on those historically under-counted populations. Applications were approved on a rolling basis through Dec. 20, 2019.
Lindeman says census officials at the national level put out very general messages about the importance of being counted, but they leave it to counties and municipalities to tailor the message to each local community.
"The best way to get a complete and accurate count is empowering communities to do their own outreach, so you can make sure you're reaching out to the right people," Lindeman says. "Our office (aims to) assemble as many community leaders, organizations, businesses, universities, schools, and diverse groups of people as possible to make sure that information gets pushed out to people most likely to be under-counted."
He says even local government might not have built enough trust with certain populations for them to trust that census data won't be used against them, and that's why the grants are being given out to individuals, businesses, and organizations who have gained that trust.
As student census coordinator, Jimenez is working with EMU's engagement department, Engage@EMU, helping students understand that many of them should be listing Ypsilanti as their residence on the 2020 Census.
"A lot of students don't understand that the census should be completed for their residence on campus if they're full-time and on campus more than at (their parents') home," says Caroline Sanders, assistant director of community relations for Engage@EMU. "Students that live on campus need to be captured so the requisite financial support from the federal government can positively affect (Ypsilanti), because the city has to provide basic services to the university."
While Jimenez's main focus is on counting students, she is also doing outreach to another demographic that might be distrustful of the federal and local government.
"I come from a very diverse background, and being Mexican, the census was a problem for us," Jimenez says. "We didn't think the census was a secure system. Going to the campus census meeting was important. We talked about how the data is confidential and the census is a trusted system. We need to get the word out, get more people to cooperate with the census, and see it as beneficial, not something that would hurt others."
Lindeman says that issue of trust is important not just with members of the public but with partner organizations that are helping with census outreach. Those partner organizations need to be convinced that participation is safe, and that individual data can't be given to anyone, including another branch of the government.
"Everything that goes out from the census is in aggregate form. You can't request individual census data," Lindeman says. There have been court cases over the past 60 years that have involved federal agencies, including the FBI, requesting personal data. Census officials said "no," and the courts backed them up, Lindeman adds.
When it comes to immigrants, concern over the use of census data is obvious, but some renters are also fearful that sharing truthful data could put them at risk of losing their housing. Gillotti says the Complete Count Commission has worked with the Ann Arbor Housing Commission and other partners to craft a message for renters: if they have someone staying with them who is not on their lease, they should include that person as living in the household for the sake of the census.
"That information will not be shared with anyone else," she says. "Make sure they're counted. You won't be at risk."
Other local educational efforts are also focused on the new ways the census is being conducted in 2020. The census has typically been a paper form that was mailed to households, but the paper form will not be used at all for the 2020 census, Lindeman says. Instead, it will be completed online or over the phone this year.
Before April 1, instead of a form, participants will get a code in the mail that corresponds to their address, with instructions for calling or taking the census online. Callers will have the option to complete the census questionnaire in more than 60 languages, or online in one of 12 languages.
"There are exciting parts of that, and challenges that come with that," Lindeman says. "Not everyone has reliable internet access, and not all feel competent going online, figuring out what they need to do, and entering personal information online."
Gillotti says some of the county's partners have said they would be applying for mini-grants focused on accessibility.
"In some cases they're looking at a computer kiosk or tablet that they can put in public places and public buildings so that people can have access (to the online census form) in locations they would tend to go anyway," she says. "We're still working out the details."
More information about the 2020 Census in Washtenaw County is available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.