Battle Creek

Calhoun County's early strategic start, help from nonprofits boosts response rates for 2020 Census

Calhoun County has a slight edge on the State of Michigan with self-response rates to the 2020 Census.

People can respond themselves in three ways—online, by phone, or by mail.  

Michigan’s self-response rate is at 68.1 percent and Calhoun County is at 68.6 percent with the City of Battle Creek coming in at 66.5 percent, says Joan Gustafson, External Affairs Officer with the Michigan Nonprofit Association and leader of the MNA’s 2020 Census campaign – Be Counted Michigan 2020.

Late last week, Michigan became the first state in the nation to match its 2010 census self-response rate which was 67.7 percent and now ranks third in the nation overall for self-responses, says Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan’s Census director.

Gustafson credits an early strategic start with these response rates noting that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was an early investor providing seed money to kickstart the planning process which was spearheaded by the Council of Michigan Foundations in 2017.

“The CMF (Council of Michigan Foundations) was the group that had the foresight to educate members about what was what at stake if we didn’t get a good count and nonprofits and philanthropy were not part of it,” Gustafson says. “That early investment by the Kellogg Foundation led to more than 40 foundations throughout the state and national groups that invested in the campaign.”

About $12 million was invested in the My Nonprofit campaign – half of which came from the philanthropic sector with the remainder coming through state appropriations. About $10 million was invested by the state of Michigan to run its own campaign.

“That was one of the lessons learned after the 2010 Census because philanthropy and nonprofits started in year 9 and didn’t invest nearly the amount of money that was needed,” Gustafson says. “In order to make an impact, you need to do it a lot sooner. The fact that we got out ahead of it early and talked about what was at stake and the importance of protecting the things that are important to us as a state has made a difference.”

Gustafson says the MNA’s campaign is coordinating its efforts with state Census work to ensure a coordinated message which involves local campaigns as well. She says the MNA’s work is focused on connecting with individuals in historically undercounted areas to encourage them to fill out the Census which is using an “Internet first” model for the first time.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is opening the eyes of Michigan residents to the importance of filling out their 2020 Census, says Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, which is serving as the Calhoun County Census Hub.

“A lot of education has taken place giving people very tangible knowledge on what the Census is and how it affects day-to-day lives,” Wallace says. “Even with the situation now with the pandemic crisis, people needed to seek medical attention. A lot of the funding for medical insurance is given by virtue of the count of the Census.

“We had schools closing down, yet a lot of schools are still able to provide meals and the funding for those schools lunches is as a result of the Census. It’s a lot easier to grab hold and see why it’s important when it’s blatant and in your face.”

The self-response rate for Calhoun County in the 2010 Census was about 79 percent. Wallace says she’d like a 100 percent response rate this time around, but admits that that likely won’t happen.

The focus of the Calhoun County Census Hub is on hard-to-reach populations. The local hub is one of 13 throughout the state established by the MNA to reach these populations.

These hubs bring together nonprofits that serve populations identified as hard-to-reach which include immigrants, minorities, and the homeless. The Calhoun County Hub has an advisory group that includes representation from the Burma Center; B.C. Pride, representing the LGBTQ community; and VOCES, which represents the Latinx community.

“In terms of serving as Calhoun County’s Census Hub our focus was on the hard-to-count populations. From the start, we were very intentional with connecting with this population and someone with the Hub formally connected to those populations,” Wallace says. “We always had someone who was representative of those hard-to-count populations.

“At the end of the day, the full campaign was about awareness. We remain focused on our targeted populations.”

Each of the hubs was given funds from the Michigan Nonprofit Association’s $12 million pool of money that in turn has been used to provide mini-grants to nonprofits charged with connecting with hard-to-reach populations. This money has been used to create awareness and fund the outreach efforts of those nonprofits charged with connecting with hard-to-reach populations.

“The applications came in for the mini-grants and our team went through and awarded them and the Battle Creek Community Foundation acting as our fiduciary sent out the funds,” Wallace says. “We gave out nine mini-grants which ranged from $2,700 to $10,000 depending on what they wrote it for in terms of what their activities will be and what they were going to do and how they were going to do it.”

The Food Bank of Southcentral Michigan planned to distribute informational materials at its pantries and distribution sites. The Burma Center was going to translate Census information into the many different dialects spoken by the city’s Burmese residents and also make presentations at churches where they worship. Wallace says some nonprofits asked for tablets that they could physically take out to people to help them complete their Census form.

The local hub had numerous activities planned to do this outreach, however, the onset of the pandemic and the state-mandated stay-at-home orders that followed prompted Wallace and her team to develop creative solutions that allowed for contact in ways that observed social distancing and health guidelines.

“When Stay-at-Home orders restricted in-person contact, nonprofits showed up to distribute food to families in need and provided information packets on filling out the census. With millions of Michiganders at home, they took their messaging online, hosting town halls and census parties,” Wallace says.

In addition to passing out information at local food distributions sites, the Calhoun County Hub created a robust social media campaign and participated in an event on June 17 called “Our Power, Our Census National Day of Action” where people were encouraged to tell 10 people to take the Census and have those 10 people invite 10 more people to complete the survey.

Gustafson says other efforts included a texting campaign and information about the Census which is printed on receipts from various dollar store chains.

These initiatives were complemented by the Michigan Nonprofit Association’s creation of a statewide Complete Count Committee in 2018 made up of about 70 organizations including the Chalcedon Community Foundation; the Hispanic Development Corp.; the Michigan Campus Compact; and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

These organizations have been advising the MNA on its Census campaign. The CCC’s were formed after officials with the Census Bureau recognized that their efforts to advertise the Census through tools including billboards would be more impactful if there was collaboration with local governments and organizations.

Battle Creek’s Complete Count Committee, helped increase awareness in several ways, including putting bus wraps on city-run buses.

City officials said earlier that all of these efforts are critical to a successful Census count.
They explained that the federal government uses a system called entitlement status. If your community's population is over 50,000 you get your money straight from the federal government for certain programs such as Community Development Block Grants and the local bus system. If your population is smaller, the money comes from the state and it’s a competitive grant that you have to apply for on an annual basis for the next 10 years until the next Census count.

The competitive grant scenario creates more work for municipalities and more uncertainty in the budget planning process for the departments they oversee, they said

During the 2010 Census the city’s population was 52,347. In 2019, the total population was 51,247 making it the 24th largest city in Michigan, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Without an accurate census count, Michigan stands to lose millions of dollars in federal support for programs that use census data. Specifically: 

• Census data is used by public officials to determine the federal distribution of funds for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and MIChild; food assistance programs including free and reduced school lunches; education funding for special education, Head Start and Title 1; and funding for roads and bridges.

• An inaccurate census count would result in the historically undercounted populations relying more heavily on nonprofit organizations for services. 

• The state also is at risk of losing a Congressional seat in Washington, D.C., which would reduce Michigan’s number of Electoral College votes. 

Gustafson says she’s pleased that the U.S. Census Bureau has extended its operations through October and says at some point in-person outreach to people who have not filled out their Census form will need to happen. She says challenges such as lack of Internet access, language, or reading barriers are among the reasons why the Census isn’t being filled out.

“With all of the things we will have in place to make it as safe as possible, a lot of nonprofits will be starting to get into neighborhoods and do door knocking. I’m hopeful that through the summer and fall there will be that in-person activity,” Gustafson says.

Wallace says there is more work yet to be done locally and the grantees continue to work diligently to ensure a high response rate.

“We’re definitely not finished yet. We’re still working on other strategies about getting the word out,” she says, this includes yard signs that will be available soon.

“When it comes right down to it, Wallace says, “Ten minutes, less than 10 questions, will affect the next 10 years of your life.”

About Calhoun County Census Hub
The Southwestern Michigan Urban League in partnership with the Battle Creek Community Foundation is serving as the Calhoun County Census Hub.  An advisory team has been meeting since March 2019 to strategize about ways to bring about awareness of the 2020 Census.  Several mini-grants were awarded to organizations to ensure the message was spread abroad. 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.