By Maya Leshikar
Northwest Asian Weekly
Census Day is not until April of next year, yet outreach and education has already begun around Seattle.
On March 13, the Seattle Area Census Office held a hiring event where job-seekers could learn about census positions and talk to recruiters. Getting an accurate headcount is crucial for federal funding and congressional representation, and census employees are the first step to getting it. But getting people to self-respond is another thing entirely, especially in hard-to-count populations. The census office depends on its collaboration with community leaders to encourage participation in undercounted communities around Seattle.
Annette Mummery, the Seattle Area Census office manager, knows better than anyone what a huge undertaking the census is. Recruiters are looking for applicants in every city and town in the state, and they are only just getting their feet wet.
“The whole idea of the census is for them to be in their community,” she said. “That’s why we have such a massive recruiting event.”
She says working for the census is a good job for people like students, rideshare drivers, seniors, or anyone who wants another source of income. She also says it is a way for civic-minded people to support their community.
“We get people from all different walks of life that come get jobs for us, so I would say it’s just a great opportunity to help your community, and earn some extra money, and help your fellow citizen,” Mummery said.
Francesca Abellera, a census partnership specialist, works with community-based organizations to raise awareness about the 2020 census. Community leaders can be gateways to populations that are considered hard to count, including the homeless, undocumented, renters, seniors, and non-English speakers. Abellera says she works with trusted leaders to become a sort of census ambassador, where they educate their community about why results of the census matter, and that participation is easy and safe.
The upcoming census will include a question about citizenship status, and some civil rights groups worry that it will depress response rates among already hard to reach populations like immigrants and noncitizens. According to the Census Bureau, the question will help inform statistics that are used to enforce the Voting Rights Act and its protections against voting discrimination. However, vulnerable communities that fear their answers could be used against them may avoid the census altogether. Losing the participation of these communities, which will likely happen, can jeopardize the amount of funding going to the state and even programs meant to assist them.
Part of Abellera’s work with community leaders and organizations is to get the word out that all the information the census collects is legally mandated to be kept confidential, including citizenship status.
“We really work and collaborate with them in partnering so that we can help engage our communities and encourage participation,” Aberella said. “It is also to remind them that their answers are safe, and that they’re confidential, and that we take a lifetime oath to protect their information.”
When we fill out the census, more than $675 billion of federal funding for the next 10 years is on the line. The population count will determine how much of that funding will be distributed to our community in programs like Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, and Early Head Start.
The state will lose almost $2,000 over the course of the decade for every person that is not counted. But money is not the only thing that rides on the census count — so does having a voice in Congress. High turnout in the 2010 census gained Washington state one congressional district, and Aberella hopes that with enough participation, we may gain another.
“It really stems from the work of everyone, like government leaders, our communities, our local government,” Aberella said. “These programs are at stake, the funding is at stake, the House of Representatives, and being part of the 435 seats in Congress.”
Community leader Debadutta Dash came to the hiring event to see how he can help the census reach his community. He has been working for almost 15 years to get more people involved with civic engagement, as the former president of the India Association of Western Washington, former commissioner to the Washington State Commission on Asian and Pacific American Affairs, and founder of the State and India Trade Relations Action Committee.
Dash has seen the Indian American population in Seattle grow substantially over the past years, but he has not seen an increase in their participation in the census. He thinks this can be attributed to distrust of the government or a misunderstanding of why responding to the census matters. He says the undercount of the Asian and Pacific Islander community means that they have not always seen that money come back.
“The India Association has been there for 35 years, but they do not have their own community center because they don’t get the fair share of their tax coming back,” Dash said. “There is nothing to lose, but to gain… It will be win-win.”
Dash would like to see the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community benefit more from the census, and he feels it’s important for every community leader to help the process along.
“This process gives things back to the community, and if the community doesn’t participate, it’s not coming. The Indian American community has not been participating to the fullest extent, and the other AAPI communities, too.”
He says participating in the census is almost like voting. While this is not election time, he says, this is the time when we decide what our community’s future will look like.
This article was updated March 2 to correct an error about the Census hiring event.
Maya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.