For states, counting every resident in the census is like hunting for coins under the sofa cushions. Added together, those people equal real money in the form of federal dollars — not to mention more seats in the U.S. Congress.
Avoiding an undercount requires a lot of outreach to the people deemed hardest to count. Among them: those who may be suspicious of or hostile to the government, racial and ethnic minorities, people with limited English, undocumented immigrants, people who are low-income or homeless, young people who move often, small children and LGBTQ individuals.
U.S. Census Bureau workers will do the actual counting next year, but states can help locate residents with new addresses, and encourage people who might be reluctant to participate. For many states, this year will be one of intense preparation — assuming lawmakers provide the necessary resources.
Congressional seats are hanging by a thread in a dozen states. Less than a 2 percent difference in the population count could mean gaining or losing a seat, according to a Stateline analysis of reapportionment projections by Election Data Services, a Virginia-based elections consulting firm.
Billions in federal dollars also depend on the census: About 300 programs use census data to distribute more than $800 billion a year, according to a 2018 report by the Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University. Medicaid, food stamps, highway construction money and school lunches all depend on the count.
“Now is the time to do it,” said Wendy Underhill, who monitors state census preparations for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Most states are on board, and I think the rest are considering it, especially these states that are on the cusp” of losing or gaining seats.
One of those states is California, the nation’s most populous, which is at risk of losing a congressional seat for the first time in its 169-year history. It can keep its seat by upping its population by 144,000 people — less than 0.5 percent of its projected 40 million residents.
To maximize its count, California since 2017 has approved $100 million to hire workers and pay for media campaigns with the aim of reaching people who are hard to count. New Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed another $54 million to bolster those efforts.
Newsom also wants the state to fact check the official count using its own estimates. States and cities may challenge the federal count if they can prove technical errors. There were 239 challenges after the 2010 census, mostly by cities and counties. Most resulted in changes to official census figures.
California has 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — more than any other state. To protect those seats, the state will monitor participation next year, watching neighborhood maps for low response rates, and swooping in to encourage residents to fill out forms.
California spent only $2 million on the 2010 census, when the state had a severe budget crisis, and $25 million in 2000.
“I would hope that states would recognize the importance of this. Some have put a lot of resources into it,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, which uses recent population trends to project the number of seats at stake in 2020.
“In previous years, a small margin has suddenly come back to cause a problem,” Brace said. “In every state, those congressional seats are important.”
The Trump administration’s push to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census has helped energize state and local leaders in Democratic-dominated California. Research suggests that such a question might dissuade immigrants — legal and illegal — from participating.
The situation is far different in Republican-led Arizona, Florida and Texas. There, state leaders support the citizenship question or have declined to fight it, and they have largely left it to city and local officials to organize outreach efforts.
A federal judge struck down the question in January but the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to make the final decision.
No state is spending nearly as much per capita as California. But states such as Maryland ($5 million for a population of roughly 6 million) and Georgia ($2.25 million for about 10.5 million people) have set aside relatively large sums.
Some states are requesting the bulk of money this year, as preparations reach final stages before the federal government sends out census questionnaires in the spring of 2020, according to state legislative analysts.
Minnesota’s Census Mobilization Partnership of state government and private nonprofits will be asking the legislature for $2.5 million. Illinois’ state-appointed Complete Count Commission is requesting $25 million.
California and other states with large immigrant populations are conducting outreach in schools, because schoolchildren may be the only English speakers in some immigrant homes. They would be the ones filling out census forms.
For instance, California gave $250,000 to public schools in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Fresno to develop and test history, social studies and arts lessons that stress census participation. Those will be available statewide in the fall, said Ditas Katague, director of the state-sponsored California Complete Count Office.
California Complete Count has asked nonprofits to submit proposals for outreach to farmworkers and minorities. One likely strategy is to tap trusted leaders, such as pastors in African-American churches, to encourage participation.
“It’s so important that the message be delivered by people who that particular audience trusts,” Katague said. “One reason California is putting in so many dollars is that we live in a unique place, and we can make the message resonate better than the feds can, better than Madison Avenue in New York or census headquarters.”
If Illinois falls short in its projected count by just 45,000 people, it could lose two seats instead of the one it’s projected to lose now, according to the Election Data Services analysis. And a margin of only 26,000 people could help Minnesota avoid losing a seat.
“We have a lot at risk. We understand that,” said Jeanine Stroger, the chairwoman of the Illinois Complete Count Commission, also state-sponsored. The commission is working on, among other things, making the state’s 639 public libraries inviting places for people to fill out online census forms.
The hardest part in Illinois will be overcoming people’s natural suspicion of personal questions and government intentions, said Kathie Kane-Willis, who helped the state conduct frank discussions with African-Americans and immigrants in Chicago.
“The barriers were, ‘What are they doing with this information? Are they going to share it with everybody? Will my landlord find out? Will my health insurance be affected?’” said Kane-Willis. “So we need to get trusted messengers in to demystify this, to reassure that this is not going out for everybody to see, it’s just to get the right amount of help where it’s needed.”
In Illinois, state lottery terminals and veterans’ newsletters will have census reminders, and libraries will hold poster contests. Volunteers plan to drum up support at community meetings.
“This is the big year,” Stroger said. “This is when we make our big push.”
Washington state this year awarded about $160,000 in grants to eight community groups for census outreach to Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Korean, Lummi Indian, homeless, low-income and other groups who may be hard to reach, according to Tracy Gunter, a program manager for the state Department of Commerce.
In Minnesota and many other states, private charities are aiding state and local officials in the census effort, driven by a desire to illuminate the plight of low-income ethnic minorities. In Minnesota, that includes American Indians, and Hmong and Somali refugees.
Groups with local roots are best-positioned to decide the best outreach strategies, said Bob Tracy, director of public policy and communications for the Minnesota Council on Foundations.
“They will tell us what is working best,” Tracy said. “The community leaders we pulled together came into this with a lot of skepticism, but they are fully committed now to an accurate census count. It was a powerful transformation.”
In some states that have been slow to devote resources to census outreach, cities and philanthropists have launched their own efforts to avoid an undercount. Nonprofits are taking the lead in Florida and Indiana, while Michigan is matching private funds up to $500,000 through a nonprofit.
In Texas, there was no statewide effort to help with the 2010 census. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund used private grants to encourage Latino participation.
Hidalgo County leaders, in the Rio Grande Valley, complained that an undercount cost the area $210 million in federal funding, citing aerial photos showing hundreds of homes that apparently were not counted. Texas, the nation’s second-most-populous state after California, has 36 House seats and stands to gain three more.
Luis Figueroa, the co-chairman of the 2010 Latino outreach, now advocates for a statewide Texas effort. He’s optimistic that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will act this year because there’s so much at stake, he said. That includes economic development opportunities.
“The census is crucial in terms of federal money for health care and education, and for political influence, but it certainly matters for business investment,” Figueroa said. “For instance, Amazon set a floor of a million people in the area where they would build a new headquarters.”
Two Texas Democrats, Reps. César Blanco of El Paso and Harold Dutton of Houston, are pushing measures in the Republican-dominated state legislature that would create a statewide organization to help with the census count, as was done in 1990 and 2000, Figueroa said.
Some skeptics doubt outreach efforts can make much of a difference. It’s not clear that Texas would see a benefit from spending a lot of money to encourage census participation, said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration and supports the citizenship question.
“If they spent $100 million it is far from clear that it would be worth it, even if it did boost turnout a little,” Camarota said.
But Underhill, the NCSL director for elections and redistricting, said Texas should be as aggressive as California in finding people, since both states have congressional seats in the balance and both have large immigration populations.
“If Texas wants to compete with California, you can be sure California is going to be counting every human being in the state,” Underhill said. “They’re going to turn over every rock.”