TWIN FALLS — With the 2020 census fast approaching, states are powering up their outreach efforts and Idaho is no exception.
While the Gem State had an 82.6% return rate for the 2010 census, there’s still a long way to go to reach an accurate count of the state’s minority groups, which impacts federal funding and political representation.
With six months left and no additional state funding for census outreach, some are feeling the crunch to put together an effective plan in time.
“We’re not setting it up to be successful, we’re setting it up to fail,” said Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. “The messages are not reaching our community.
On June 24, Gov. Brad Little announced the formation of Idaho’s first census committee. Its goal is ensure all residents are counted with a focus on reaching historically undercounted populations.
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The committee will have members from diverse a range of organizations, including government agencies, law enforcement and identity groups in order to address the needs of underrepresented groups.
“Especially for hard to count groups, finding someone the community respects and using those trusted voices makes a difference,” said John Thompson, former executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics. “You can’t get a message out from Washington, D.C.”
The Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 forms has added to some states’ worries about a significant undercount as some people may be hesitant to participate in the census because of their nationality or legal status. Gov. Brad Little’s office said the citizenship question was not a factor in creating the committee.
Trump announced executive action last week ordering federal agencies to compile citizenship data. The announcement comes after the Supreme Court struck down the addition of the citizenship question and the Justice Department announced it would not continue to pursue the issue.
“Idaho gets on average $15,000 in federal funds per person,” said Andrew Mitzel, senior adviser of intergovernmental affairs. “If we miss someone, we lose $15,000 per person per year and that impacts everything from school lunches, hospitals and roads.”
The state’s small, rural communities that are predominantly Hispanic are at risk of losing thousands of dollars in much-needed federal funding. In places like Clark County, where the population is barely more than 850, a failure to reach Latinos that make up 45% of its population could be devastating. Undocumented immigrants make up 21% of its population.
The stakes are not as dire in the Magic Valley as a whole, where approximately 23% of residents are Latino and 9% are undocumented, but community groups are working with schools, government agencies and local businesses to prepare them to assist with the count.
In Jerome, where 36% of the population is Latino and 12% is undocumented, economic-development organization Jerome 20/20 is keeping abreast of the census and acting as a guide for other institutions in the county.
“What we’re going to be doing is keeping this in front of them,” said Larry Hall, executive director of 20/20 Jerome. “We’ll be having more public events and getting the word out there.”
Jerome stands to lose $2,000 per person not counted per year.
Though Idaho has a relatively small percentage of undercounted communities compared to other states, its lack of data for these groups makes it difficult to identify and target them for census outreach.
An accurate count is crucial to maintaining accurate data for groups like the Commission on Hispanic Affairs to decide where to direct their efforts, Gonzalez said.
“If we don’t count them this time, we have to wait 10 years to try again,” she said.
Awareness may not be enough. Fear and distrust of government are common factors that keep minority populations from returning census forms.
“One barrier is motivation. It’s one thing to create awareness and it’s another for people to respond,” Thompson said. “Finding out what people care about is key.”
The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs has been focusing its census efforts on the concerns of Latinos as learned through public town hall events. Conservation Voters of Idaho, which will also be represented in the census committee, is also drawing from its own experiences in mobilizing the Latino community.
“Conservation Voters for Idaho is taking the lessons we’ve learned in our efforts to increase participation in elections by Idaho’s Latino population, and the barriers that can sometimes arise in that process to support the efforts locally, regionally and statewide to inform a comprehensive strategy to reach out to one of the fasting growing populations in the state,” Antonio Hernandez, voting rights associate at Conservation Voters for Idaho, said in a statement. “A complete count of all Idahoans is important to ensuring that the next decade of funding and public policy accurately reflects our families and communities.”
Representatives from the organizations that will form the Complete Count Committee will meet for the first time July 25.
“One way or another, this affects you,” Mitzel said. “Somewhere down the line you are affected by these numbers. Right now we are setting ourselves up for the next decade.”
Megan Taros is a Times-News reporter and Report for America corps member covering the Magic Valley’s Hispanic community and Jerome County. You can support her work by donating to Report for America at http://bit.ly/supportRFA.