Updated March 22, 2019 to reflect corrections.
Dozens of people gathered at Gresham City Hall on March 7, 2019 for the first in a series of critical informational and strategy meetings to get out the word about upcoming 2020 census.
Census Day is April 1, 2020 but a year-long awareness campaign and countdown begins April 1, 2019. The Constitution requires that every 10 years, the federal government take a complete count or census of how many people live in the United States. The tally determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress. Oregon is poised to gain another representative in the U.S. House.
But the count also lays out the framework for the distribution of more than $883 billion in federal funds, grants and support to states, counties and communities.
“Oregon brings in $13 billion per year from the federal government and those are based on a formula that’s based on numbers from the census,” stressed Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who hosted the East County Issue Forum on March 7.
“Roughly half of those dollars flow through the Portland metropolitan area. We could potentially lose funding if not everyone is counted,” Stegmann said.
Already, the Census Bureau has begun advertising to hire nearly 300 people locally to help with the effort.
But there are significant challenges to getting to that accurate number — particularly for historically undercounted communities including homeless, low-income, communities of color and non-English speakers. And this time, with a pending Supreme Court decision on whether to include a citizenship question on the 2020 form, census takers will need to convince many already distrustful and fearful people to take the survey.
More than two dozen states, including Oregon, filed lawsuits against the question.
“We have to assume the question will be on the form and prepare for the worst,” said Stegmann.
“The thing is some of the very people who are fearful of filling it out are also the people who can benefit the most and need that funding most,” she said.
The census aids in the drawing of Congressional and state legislative boundaries as well as Electoral College votes.
It also has enormous impact on local communities because it is used to apportion funding for Medicaid reimbursement and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school lunches, highway planning, Women Infants and Children (WIC) services and foster care programs.
The census also plays a role in attracting new businesses to the state and local areas. It helps create maps to speed emergency services to households. It helps establish fair market rents and enforcing fair lending practices — the list goes on.
“Why am I doing this?,” said Stegmann, “Why am I leading this charge? I feel like my personal story, my upbringing, makes me familiar with some of the challenges our most impoverished communities face.
Stegmann grew up in the Rockwood neighborhood after being adopted as an infant from an orphanage in Korea.
“Where I grew up, people who are immigrants are no stranger to fears. I have a unique front row seat to some of those fears that our communities are feeling.
If you took Multnomah County and divided it into to two states with 82nd Avenue being the division line, she continued, west Multnomah County would be the second wealthiest state in the country per capita and east Multnomah County would be the second poorest.”
This year, states and counties are hitting the ground running with a contingent of Complete Count Committees to help ensure the count is as accurate and complete as possible. Governor Kate Brown has also made the count a priority by investing in the state’s first ever Count Committee project manager. Commissioner Stegmann is Multnomah County’s representative.
Census forms can be completed by mail, telephone, or though an in-person interview, but the 2020 census will largely be conducted online. Most people will receive a postcard or invitation in the mail to fill out the online census form.
At the East County meeting, community members discussed ways to establish trust, reach undercounted communities and those who don’t have internet access including establishing community ambassadors, connections at churches and community organizations, canvassing and more.
Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties are joining the state in a series of events beginning in April 2019.
“One year may seem like a lot of time to get ready, but its not,” said Stegmann.
“The majority of people in east Multnomah County are not doing as well as we might imagine,” she said.
“What’s exciting about the census work is not only can we backup the data but we can bring additional resources into East County.
I’m hoping a complete census count can help improve that.”