With billions in federal funding on the line, NH officials are working to ensure every NH resident is counted in the 2020 U.S. Census. With the focus on coronavirus, it would be easy to miss that the census is in full swing.
Aside from being constitutionally mandated, there are big bucks that could be left on the table if the population is undercounted. The census is the basis for how the federal government disburses more than $675 billion annually for clinics, schools, roads, and other infrastructure and service needs. That includes allocations for food stamps or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), school lunch programs, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
In FY 2016, NH received $3.7 billion through 55 federal programs, including $1.3 billion for Medicaid, $899 million in federal direct student loans, $294 million for Medicare funding, $174 million in highway planning and construction funds and $130 million for low-to-moderate-income housing loans, according to an analysis conducted by the George Washington University Institute for Public Policy.
Fully 31% of the state budget is from federal transfers, says Phil Sletten, policy analyst for the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, and policy decisions and federal spending are based on census numbers. Sletten points to the 178,000 Medicaid recipients in NH and how the census count affects the Medicaid reimbursement the state receives from the feds.
It’s the 2010 census count that is the current basis for population estimates and poverty data, Sletten says. Census information is also used for congressional redistricting and is used to reapportion the House of Representatives to determine how many seats each state receives.
“It’s eye-opening for community leaders and organizations of how important it is that the count is accurate and complete,” says Jeff Behler, Census Bureau regional director, adding the results in 2020 will influence policy and funding until 2030. “We don’t get a second chance to do the census.”
It’s not just government officials and policy wonks that use census information. “A lot of businesses use census data for trends to decide where to allocate resources,” says Bill Maddocks, a 2020 U.S. Census Complete Count consultant hired by a group of funders in the state, including the NH Charitable Foundation and the NH Women’s Fund, to assist the state with census efforts. “For a place like New Hampshire, with no income tax and limited resources, this $3.7 billion is critical,” he says. “The funders rightfully figured out we are in danger of having a lower count.”
The Risk of Undercounting
The consequences of undercounting can be financially dire for states. It is estimated that 5% of children under the age of 5 were not counted nationwide in 2010—or about 1 million children—resulting in the loss of billions of federal funding for communities. State and federal officials want to prevent that from happening again.
Susan Howland, the Manchester census coordinator, says there were impoverished neighborhoods where one in three people did not complete the 2010 form. And, while digital access is available for the first time, Maddocks says 26% of Manchester residents don’t have internet access.
Manchester, Nashua, and the Seacoast are home to large swaths of immigrants and refugees, and Howland is concerned they are particularly vulnerable to being undercounted, as they may not feel safe giving information to government officials or trust them. She says area nonprofits are working to assure these groups that it is safe to complete the census.
Maddocks emphasizes the census requires everyone in the country be counted, no matter their immigration status. He fears any U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity could seed distrust of the government, making it less likely immigrants and refugees participate. Another challenge is finding enough interpreters, as forms are only available in English and Spanish, Maddocks says. However, the phone questionnaire can be completed in 14 languages.
To assuage those concerns, Behler emphasizes that federal law protects “every piece of information we collect. It can’t be accessed by any law enforcement for any reason.” The Census Bureau is also prohibited from sharing information that would identify any individual or household. Maddocks adds any unauthorized release of data would result in “five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.”
College students are another group at risk of being under-reported, officials say. “College students generally are confused if they should be counted with their parents or on the campus where they are domiciled,” says Maddocks. With colleges and universities sending students home because of the coronavirus, confusion could worsen.
Steve Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, says people are supposed to be counted where they’ve lived for at least six months, which means college students should use their college address.
Steve Dillingham, director of the U. S. Census Bureau, speaks at a press conference with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, encouraging NH residents to complete their census forms. Photo by Matthew J. Mowry.
Sletten notes African Americans, Hispanics, those with disabilities, and people living in rural areas have also been undercounted in the past.
Maddocks cites concerns about the North Country, where communities have less access to high-speed internet and mobile services, although he notes several organizations are working to mitigate that and there are always paper and phone options. A census taker will visit anyone not responding to those options.
Sletten says the Census had planned to have three tests of the new online system prior to launching but, due to lack of funding, was only able to test once. “Had there been three, we would have a higher level of confidence. Whether that increases the risk of an undercount is difficult to say,” he says.
The primary defense against undercounting are the Complete Count Committees set up in communities and run by local government officials and volunteers. “These trusted local leaders know these communities best and how to motivate their communities,” Behler says. Committees and their partners receive fact sheets, tools kits, and other resources to distribute information through events and activities (though the recent pandemic is likely to affect those efforts).
The census has 30,000 partners nationwide, Dillingham says, including thousands in NH. Nashua’s Complete Count Committee, active since spring 2019, launched a website and reached out to community stakeholders to help promote the census. “We get the local experts together to get the word out about the census,” says Kerry Miller, committee member and editor of the Nashua Telegraph.
The committee is working to mitigate immigrant undercounts and partnering with senior centers and libraries to widen access to computers.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns about recruiting census workers. As a result, pay for census workers shot to $20 per hour. Dillingham says the census hires more people than it needs as turnover is high and some applicants fail the background check.
The Census has a goal of hiring 2.7 million census workers for its temporary part-time jobs. He says that these are jobs that can be done in the evenings and on weekends and there are still openings.
In response to the pandemic, the deadline for completing the census has been moved back two weeks to Aug. 14.
Dillingham says if people complete the census online, by phone, or by mail, it will eliminate the need for anyone to visit them at their home. “We want to push the response rate up so no one has to come to your home or community,” he says.