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The Importance of State and Local Involvement in the Census Process

We Should Be Involved as We Live with the Results

Local participation occurs in two significant ways. First, enumerators who do the actual work as enumerators for the Census Bureau; and second, local groups such as complete count committees that encourage the participation in the once-every-10-year process.

Each decade, the United States conducts a decennial census to count the population. The Census Bureau has realized the response rate of households have been dropping over the past several decades. Nationally, in 2000, only 74% of households responded to the initial census form sent to their homes.

 
That rate further declined to 67% nationwide in 2010. North Dakota has seen a similar decline in response rate. In the 2000 Census, 78% of households responded, and in 2010, that number dropped to 74%.  

This means that nearly one-third of households nationally were enumerated with subsequent mailings or were counted when enumerators showed up at the home, knocked on the door and asked the questions in person. This adds significantly to the cost of the operations, spending funds that could be used for other purposes.
Local Efforts: A Truly Effective Answer to the Declining Response Rate
Educating the local public about the safety and security of the census process and the impact on local funding and infrastructure is something that can be done best by individuals that understand the process and the impacts to the local area. Therefore, local complete count committees are so much more effective than messaging that comes from a national source, such as the Census Bureau.

For both Census 2010 and 2020, the Census Bureau prepared a report titled “Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study.” (CBAMS). Both studies used focus groups to try to understand individual attitudes about participating in the census process. These studies also detail why individuals may be unlikely to participate in the census process. Reasons cited included:
  • Concerns about data privacy and confidentiality
  • Fear of repercussions
  • Distrust in all levels of government
  • A lack of efficacy (did not feel it matters)
  • Belief that completing the census could not benefit them personally
On the other hand, the studies found the primary motivators of self-response across all audiences was community funding for public services.

“A plurality of householders felt that funding for public services, such as fire and police departments, hospitals and roads and highways, was the most important reason to participate in the census.” 

Lack of familiarity with the census process was also a significant finding in these studies. Only a third of respondents to the CBAMS focus groups reported that they were “extremely familiar” or “very familiar” with the census. The 2020 CBAMS report shows that less than half of respondents knew that the census was used to determine community funding.
 
The issues found nationally in the CBAMS report appear to be no different than what we have experienced in North Dakota.
(Extracted from the 2020 Census CBAMS Report)
When Complete Count Committees Started
Even though the decennial census is done every 10 years, no two censuses have been exactly alike. The process has slowly evolved over time. The method of enumeration has changed, the questions asked have changed and the emphasis on partnering outside of the Census Bureau appears to have grown over time. The declining response rate indicated a need for a change.

In reviewing the summary history of each of the recent censuses, the first mention of Complete Count Committees was found in 1990. Usually, when the Census Bureau starts a project, it is tested in a select set of areas. If it works, it is used in other areas.

It appears this was the case in the 1990 Census. The summary of the 1990 Census mention of Complete Count Committees in describing what was done reads: “Promotion activities included local 'complete count' committees, information kits and lesson plans for schools (Census in Schools), for churches, local government outreach and partnerships and pro bono public service announcements, costing approximately $67 million." 

No other mention of Complete Count Committees for the 1990 Census could be found in the summary for prior years. Nor is there any mention of partnering with states.

The emphasis on partnering with local entities grew in preparation for Census 2000. In that decade’s effort, the Census Bureau appears to have greatly expanded its partnership program with a wide variety of entities. The Census 2000 Operational Plan indicates that the bureau intended to establish partnerships with governments and establishing local complete count committees. This plan does not detail the number or the density desired. In fact, the term “Complete Count Committees” is mentioned only once in the 150-page operational plan.

However, some real gems appear to have occurred that led individuals to recognize success at the state level in Census 2000. In a report to Congress on the effectiveness of Census 2000, a group named the “Census Monitoring Board” wrote in its 174-page submission to Congress on the effectiveness of the bureau’s effort in Census 2000.  
This report indicates that the Census Bureau partnered with 140,000 organizations, including state, community, non-profit and corporate partnerships. The board’s report highlighted the efforts of two states, Georgia and California, in forming state-level Complete Count Committees “comprised of a broad cross section of business and community leaders” as a best practice in reaching hard-to-count populations.

The report describing Georgia’s effort reads: “The States’ outreach efforts proved to be successful, in large part because of a 'three tiered' outreach strategy involving the State, 16 Regional Development Committees (RDCs) and local community groups. The RDCs, especially helpful in the development of address lists and the Local Update of the Census Addresses (LUCA) program, played a pivotal role in the partnership effort from beginning to end. Working to enhance public participation in the census, the State sought to build on pre-existing relationships with major organizations operating within the State …”
 
Local efforts also appear to have had a significant impact. San Diego, California, is cited in the report as having taken on a multitude of approaches to encourage participation in Census 2000. As a result, this county with a population of 2.8 million was able to raise its response rate by 5%, from 67% in 1990 to 71% in 2000, while most other areas experienced a decline in response rates.
 
The report on the 2000 Census suggests that a multi-tiered approach, involving federal, state and local government efforts can pay significant dividends in increasing the response rate in the local area, thereby saving funds.

Given that the success with the local effort in Census 2000, the effort of involving partners was significantly ramped up in Census 2010 with the Census Bureau’s list of partnerships growing from about 140,000 in 2000 to 268,000 in 2010. Among the goals was to encourage organizations to request that their staff assist on Complete Count Committees; and … engage in collaborative activities.” 

The message the bureau focused on in 2010 with its partners was that the census is safe and essential to serving local needs.
North Dakota Gets Engaged
 
Census 2010 was also the first year in which the state of North Dakota got organized for the census – at least the first census for which any documentation exists or can be recalled by individuals who were involved in preparation for the census. The State Complete Count Committee was formed by former Gov. John Hoeven to encourage individuals to participate in the process. An already existing multi-agency task force called the State Census Committee formed the nucleus of the committee, led by the state’s economist from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Local committees were formed in Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot, Watford City, Jamestown and Carrington. Notes from that effort also mention a separate tribal effort that occurred. The legislature allocated $100,000 for the effort. Local advertising to encourage participation went to billboards, banners and table tents to place in bars in high-growth areas of the state, such as the Bakken Region. A training conference was held in February of 2010 to help local communities prepare for the upcoming census.
What’s Happening for Census 2020
 
The Census Bureau has been able to verify residential locations in a number of ways. In determining where to count individuals, the bureau is primarily interested in locations where residential housing or group quarters locations exists. Hence, there are efforts to screen out non-residential locations, such as businesses, from the process.

Data shared by the U.S. Postal Service with the Census Bureau goes a long way in determining where residential housing exists. To enhance its understanding of housing locations, the Census Bureau has employed satellite imagery. Counties and states share parcel data that shows if a location is zoned for residential or non-residential use. North Dakota has shared data from 50 of the state’s 53 counties to ensure the bureau has the most accurate data possible.
 
In addition, the state has signed up for a program called Count Review. This allows select state of North Dakota employees to review the Census Bureau’s Master Address List and identify missing housing units from the bureau’s list.
How is North Dakota Doing for Census 2020?
Of the 50 states, 48 have formed statewide complete count committees of some kind. In the language of the Census Bureau, these are referred to as Complete Count Commissions. In North Dakota, we chose to title the state-level committee as a “Task Force” to denote the non-permanent status of the organization, focused on a narrow problem – ensuring everyone in the state gets counted in the 2020 Census. Those states without state-level efforts are South Dakota and Nebraska.

In addition to the state’s effort, there are 45 local complete committees that represent local interests in ensuring a complete count. This compares to just four trained CCCs, according to Census Bureau records from Census 2010.
 The type of committee varies. In some cases, cities have organized an effort like that in Dickinson. In other cases, the entire county – like Emmons County – formed one committee. In other cases, the city and county combined efforts, such as Williston and Williams County. In addition, all four tribes in the state have formed their own committees.

Regardless of the structure or the location, the purpose is the same: encourage participation in the census to contribute to local communities' future accessibility to funding and political representation. Each local committee knows its own area best; better than the state or the federal government. Leveraging this local understanding and mobilizing local leaders to encourage participation is the keys to success in this effort.
Local individuals know their unique challenges and how best to address them. In western North Dakota, counting recently arrived Bakken oilfield workers is a major concern. In Minot, it may be a combination of recently arrived oilfield workers and military personnel assigned to Minot Air Force Base who are legal residents outside the state. In Grand Forks, the issues are likely counting college students residing off campus that are legal residents of Minnesota or alien residents attending the University of North Dakota.

Tribes in the state may need to place greater emphasis on the privacy and confidentiality of the census as individuals on reservations may feel the data collected could harm them in some way.

Comparatively speaking, North Dakota appears to be overrepresenting in Complete Count Committees. The bureau’s intention is to establish CCCs in locations where there is expected to be a lower Census 2020 participation rate. The State Task Force’s intention has been to establish these committees across the state. Hence, the State Task Force has strongly encouraged the formation of local committees through the state. 

Part of the reason for this is the state's very low unemployment rate, which makes it difficult for the Census Bureau to find individuals to work as enumerators. The higher the response rate the state can achieve, the lower the workforce requirement the Census Bureau will face in the state.  
The North Dakota Complete Count Task Force, led by Linda Svihovec of Bismarck and Louise Dardis of West Fargo, also has attempted to assist the Census Bureau getting the word out on the need for workers in local areas, asking, “who will do your enumeration?”
In some areas, the Census Bureau has reported having a difficult time hiring. Task force members recently encouraged city officials and Complete Count Committees to contact likely local employees and the Census Bureau upped the wage of enumerators. These efforts paid dividends as the bureau reports a significant uptick in the number of individuals contacting it about enumerator employment.
Upcoming Events:
January 15, 2020 GNDC Roundtable: Engaging Workforce - Minot, Hess Office
January 15-16, 2020 - Strengthening Government to Government Relationships and Partners - Bismarck, BSC Energy Center 
January 29-31, 2020 - KMOT Ag Expo
 - Minot, State Fair Center
February 3, 2020  - We're Counting on You Workshop - Bismarck, BSC
Achieving a High Level of Response is a Team Effort
Getting everyone counted is a huge task. Complete Count Committees' local efforts are critical to the success of our state and ensuring our future. These committees are on the front lines ensuring a successful count, first for their communities and second for the state. The impacts of an undercount in the 2020 Census are estimated at $19,100 per person over the decade-long time frame. This is reason enough to be engaged in the process. Working together, “Shaping our Future” for the good is in all our best interest. This is what we are striving to achieve between now and Census Day!.
 
Sources: Census 1990 Summary report, Census 2000 operational plan Federal Register – Census Monitoring Board, https://www.federalregister.gov/agencies/census-monitoring-board,  Census 2000 Operational Plan, 2010 Census Barriers Attitudes and Motivators Study Survey Report, 2010 National Partnership Program, 2020 Census Barriers, Attitude and Motivations Motivators Study Survey Report, 2020 Partnership Program and author’s notes.
 
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