A year out from 2020 Census, city targets higher response rate and ‘hard-to-reach’ groups

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With just under a year to go now before federal census workers begin knocking on doors around the country, Baltimore City bureaucrats and partners are trying to reinforce what’s on the line in the upcoming national head count.

“This is really just about people. This is how we, as a city, get funding from the state,” said Austin Davis, 2020 Census project manager for the Department of Planning. “If people think, Oh my council district is too small and it needs to be redistricted, the census does this.”

The same goes for anyone relying on more than 50 state and federal programs, ranging from school lunches to housing vouchers and even urban farms, he said. The feds “determine those funding numbers from the census. Every time a person is not counted, it’s about $1,800 a year over a 10-year period… You’re looking at a significant amount of money that the city and state loses as a result.”

That’s a key motivator for the Census Complete Count Committee‘s Action Plan, a 54-page living document (that is, constantly being updated, like a Google Doc) that serves as an outline for getting as many Baltimoreans as possible accounted for over the next 18 months.

The city is feeling ambitious for the upcoming count, which will be the first one ever conducted online. Officials are targeting a 73 percent response rate—up from 63 percent in 2000 and 68 percent in 2010.

The committee, chaired by Baltimore’s missing-in-action mayor with honorary chairs in U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and former Sen. Barb Mikulski, has a particular focus on reaching “hard-to-count populations.” For Baltimore, those include children under age 5, seniors, people returning from prison, young black men, non-English speakers, people with disabilities and special needs, homeless individuals and LGBTQ youth, according to the committee.

Baltimore Corps president and CEO Fagan Harris, one of three active chairs of the committee, said it’s “absolutely imperative” that the count reaches those groups.

“Our goal is to make this the most equitable census ever in the history of the city, which is gonna require massive offline and online outreach,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of different ways we plan to make sure that everyone’s counted in Baltimore, and that we’ve got a major focus on communities that have historically been ignored and are hard to count.”

The action plan includes sections on advertising and media-buying to get word of the census out there, as well as plans for disseminating literature through schools, the library and other public institutions, and an inventory of community and senior centers and neighborhood groups to connect with.

The city has already applied for state funding to help pay for some of the work, like a public awareness campaign and targeted media purchases, and laptops and tablets to bring into low-income communities and help residents fill out forms, among other efforts. Davis said they’ve successfully secured $250,000 in grants from the state and are in the process of finalizing that agreement.

It’s readily apparent some of the information in the action plan is lacking. The list of media outlets is dated, with entries like City Paper (R.I.P.), The Baltimore Guide (also R.I.P.) and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Rawlings-Blake Review” newsletter (not really news, and also since replaced), and is missing a number of digital news outlets (ahem). It mentions a four-year-old summary of Baltimore’s public schools and, elsewhere, has boilerplate language from a template (the phrase “your city” is a dead giveaway) and typos.

Davis guesses the document is about 75 percent complete as-is, but is actually happy it still needs some some work because it invites public input and engagement on the plan.

“It’s definitely still in draft form. I personally really want it to be put out there in this draft form,” he says, noting it’s easier for people to approach and contribute when there’s clearly information they can add to it.

Anyone can submit comments online already, though there’s also an event coming up where people can chime in. The city is hosting a 2020 Census open house event at Poly High School next Tuesday, April 23, where attendees will get to mark up the plan in-person, ask federal, state and local Census workers and partners about the counting process and, if they so wish, sign up for paid gigs to join the big count.

The 2020 Census has generated buzz for years already because it’s the first one to go online. While that’s all well and good, particularly for younger audiences, Davis said, there will still be paper forms—key for Baltimore, where an estimated 74,116 households have no internet access—plus call-in centers and designated areas for people to be counted in-person.

With about 11 months to go, Davis said he’s hoping the Complete Count Committee can host at least one event per month, particularly targeting neighborhoods with those aforementioned hard-to-reach groups.

“We want the public to both be aware of this and give us input,” he said, “because the only way we can ensure the proper outreach [target] is hit is if they come to us.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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