Nevada, a hard state to count, pours resources into census outreach

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Nearly a third of all Nevadans are considered “hard to count” by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means they are part of populations who historically have had low rates of response to the census questionnaire. This includes people of color, immigrants, low-income households, limited-English speakers, single-parent households, renters and young adults. While not self-responding to the census does trigger follow-ups from census workers, those efforts are costly, time-consuming and, if unsuccessful, lead to undercounting.

That’s a big deal for the state which relies on census data for proper funding of the types of federal programs that benefit these hard-to-count populations most. Things like Medicaid and the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced lunches at public schools.

And the U.S. Census Bureau has its work cut out this year.

Distrust of the government is high overall, and the nonpartisan nature of the census was called into question with a high-profile battle over whether a citizenship question could be included. Federal courts ruled the question could not be included in the 2020 Census — and it won’t be — but the echoes of that Trump administration effort may still have a chilling effect on communities impacted by immigration.

Beyond distrust of government, there are plenty of reasons people don’t fill out their census questionnaire or leave someone off it. A low-income worker may be juggling three jobs and feel as if they don’t have a minute to spare. A renter might assume its something their landlord is supposed to fill out. A parent might not realize their college-aged child should be listed. People living over-capacity in an apartment might be afraid of their landlord finding out. Someone living with a disability made have difficulty filling out the form.

Whatever their reason, in 2010, more than a third of Nevadans — 36 percent — failed to fill out the census without some kind of follow-up.

In an effort to raise that percentage this time around and ensure proper federal funding, Nevada is ramping up resources in support of the upcoming decennial census with the Nevada Census 2020. The media and community outreach effort was created through an executive order by the governor and is funded by the state to support the U.S. Census Bureau in outreach efforts, especially among hard-to-count communities.

According to Nevada Census 2020, 32 percent of people in the state live within hard-to-count census tracts.

Nevada Census 2020 Statewide Coordinator Kerry Durmick says Nevada is seen as one of the hardest states for census collection.

Durmick has hired staff across the state to do media and community outreach. So far that has included attending community events, such as a recent homeless resource event in Washoe County, and arranging their own community events at “trusted places” like public libraries.

She adds that the main priority is reminding people the census is confidential and cannot be used for law or immigration enforcement purposes.

“The census is required by law to protect that information,” says Durmick. “They’ll only use your data for statistical purposes to get more funding.”

Outreach coordinators also want to drill into people the ways the census impacts their communities. Most notably: the money it brings the state.

According to Nevada Lt. Governor Kate Marshall, in 2016, Nevada received $6.2 billion in federal funding based on 2010 census data numbers. That included $2.6 billion for Medicaid, $357 million for highway planning, $120 million for Title-1 (aka, schools with high percentages of low-income students) and $20 million for programs supporting victims of crime.

“If we don’t count that person, we will still have the needs (of that person),” Marshall told lawmakers during an interim committee Monday, “and the legislature will be tasked with (funding) it.”

Every person counted in the census equates to approximately $20,000 in federal funding over a decade, or $2,000 per year until the next decennial census.

Adds Durmick, “We’ll keep talking about that specific number. This is what comes back to their community. This funding pays for affordable housing, infrastructure, healthcare — everything that affects them.”

In addition to the Nevada Census 2020 staff, a nine-person Nevada Complete Count Committee appointed by the governor and six subcommittees have been formed to brainstorm and help execute outreach efforts.

One of them, the education subcommittee, has suggested handing out census swag to school children for them to bring back to their parents as a reminder to fill out the census — and to include them and any younger siblings. (One of the hard-to-count community populations are ‘children under the age of 5,’ presumably because parents don’t realize they are supposed to include them. Undercounting is especially prevalent in so-called “complex households” where children are living in multigenerational homes, in homes with multiple family units or with a foster family.)

They might also suggest promoting the official theme song of Census 2020, which does exist:

The employer subcommittee, which includes representatives from various chambers of commerce, has suggested promoting a designated “work stop” time of 10 to 15 minutes where employers are encouraged to fill out the census online.

These efforts will supplement official U.S. Census Bureau outreach efforts, which will include large-scale “days of action” events and involves extensive partnerships. According to Brian Berman with the U.S. Census Bureau, that partnership network includes almost every library and senior center in the state, almost every university, hundreds of houses of faith, and city governments. It also involves training more than 1,000 public employees on how they can promote the census while interacting with the public through their existing jobs.

Analysts estimate more than 300,000 people have moved to Nevada since the 2010 census. Officially capturing that growth could have major impacts on federal funding levels.

There are, of course, also political ramifications.

In addition to determining federal program funding, census data is what determines reapportionment and redistricting at the state and national level. After the 2010 census, Nevada gained a congressional district — CD4, currently represented by Rep. Steven Horsford. This time around Nevada does not appear to be in the running to gain an additional seat. It is also not at risk of losing any congressional seats.

However, the census data could have implications for the Nevada Legislature.

After the 2010 census, the 2011 Nevada Legislature was tasked with redistricting. The Democratic-controlled legislature passed two redistricting bills but both were vetoed by Republian Gov. Brian Sandoval, which pushed the task of redistricting to the courts.

Barring unexpected shifts in state district races this election year, Democrats will control the legislature and governorship for the 2021 redistricting efforts.

While the census has already begun in remote areas of Alaska, residents here in Nevada will begin receiving “invitations” to complete the survey on March 12. By April 1 — known as “Census Day” — everyone should have received theirs.

For the first time, people will have an option to respond to the census online. Phone and paper options will still be available.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.