Episode 5: This One Counts
The 2020 U.S. Census is at a “high risk” for failure, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Given that the decennial Census is how our government divvies up Congressional representatives, federal program dollars, and a host of other assets, a failed Census could spell chaos for our country. And for the nonprofit sector.
Philanthropy has played a key role in previous censuses, providing the resources and know-how to mobilize community groups, neighbors, and businesses to help ensure an accurate count. Perla Ni, founder and CEO of the Census Outreach Project, and Kyle Caldwell, Executive Director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, join the hosts to talk about what nonprofits can do this time around.
Patrick Center: You're listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy. I’m Patrick Center.
Tory Martin: I’m Tory Martin.
Matthew Downey: I’m Matthew Downey.
PC: Alright. Basic question. Tory, it's yours.
TM: Why is the census important? It's coming up in 2020. It is currently 2018. We're talking about it already, seems to be going in some wrong directions or some stressful directions, at any rate. What's going on here?
So, I think we can start with the simple fact that the GAO (U.S. Government Accountability Office) in January 2017 set the census at a “high risk” for failure.
PC: But I, I do think it gets into, with new technologies, how that kind of muddies it. Because before it was so simple. It came in the mail, you filled it out, you send it in. Census done.
MD: Right? And that's my point on, there's a, there, uh, there is some truth next to my nonspecific data point, which is that hard to count populations absorbs so much of the cost of doing this. So, the smallest population of people, costs the most. And that's where the nonprofits come in because there's all of this mobilization and engagement with to try to attract.
PC: But so much of the social service dollars go to those populations right-
MD: Go to that population-
TM: Exactly to that population
MD: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely.
TM: So is this, I mean it costs 60 cents. It's going to cost you 60 cents to get my household. I need one stamp. Send me my letter. I will fill it all out.
TM: But I have a graduate degree in American Studies.
TM: What do you have to do make the argument?-
MD: You are not-
TM: I am not-
MD: The demographic, right.
TM: …the hard to count population. Like, where do I stand in line?
MD: You do not represent America.
TM: No, I really don't.
PC: Yeah, but those populations then are the ones who are also served by the nonprofit organizations.
MD: It’s, it’s fundamental. You have to count them, right? And they're the hardest ones to count.
PC: So, an inaccurate census count means the hard to count populations will rely more heavily on the nonprofit organizations for services. Of course, that is a bullet point that I am reading-
PC: From this, this great flyer that's been produced by the Michigan Nonprofit Association. It really lays out the facts and what, what is at stake, here, in the 2020 census.
TM: I think the point is that the money goes somewhere, right? If people in Michigan do not stand up to be counted, or if people in Missouri do not stand up to be counted, then the federal funding for really crucial programs, social service programs, are going to go to the states that do stand up to be counted. As are the, uh, congressional rep, representatives and ultimately the electoral votes. This is a multilayered issue of power and resources.
PC: You're talking about the resources in the dollars. Let's take a, take a look at this. So, the largest federal sources that use census data for distribution: Medicare, Medicaid, health centers across the country, that's 58 percent of the federal resources. 20 percent goes to SNAP/WIC/school lunch programs across the country. Education, you look at, uh, Title I, IDEA, Headstart, that’s eight percent. Seven percent infrastructure, so, highways, roads, bridges. Housing is four percent. And then children, childcare, S—CHIP, foster care, that's two percent. And of course, in any survey, you find that there's that one percent, we don't know where it goes—
PC: But that's the pie, essentially. And that's a lot of federal dollars, that, it's a big number. What are you looking at, like how many bills?-
TM: $600 billion-
PC: -$600 billion dollars. And as you mentioned, it's going to flow somewhere.
TM: And these are deal-breaker services. I mean, this is basic human needs: food and shelter. If we aren't able to cover those needs within our communities via federal subsidies or federal grants, then they have to come from somewhere and where do they come from? They come from nonprofits.
MD: And it's, it's not just about like, how many people live, you know, it's just where the population centers are. It's the distribution of the population is a critical thing because uh, a lot of state funding, federal funding that they're looking at. Like, when we look at arts funding, for example, you can tell as the, uh, each state comes out with its strategy for arts funding, that they're looking at the population distribution and they're making sure that the population all has access to the arts in their communities. So, it just informs so many decision points that all intersect with the nonprofit sector.
TM: And so many nonprofits are relying on census data to make the arguments they have to make in order to secure the funding they need. Because more and more foundations are, are very reasonably asking for data on whether or not you're reaching populations, what is the size of the need that you're trying to meet and are you in fact meaning it? And the census provides a ton of that data to let us know the answer to those questions. And it's the benchmark for every 10 years that you know, at this moment, what the level of the issue is and, to chart your change over time, you have to have an accurate census that can be truly comparable 10 years later.
PC: And, and if you miss those underserved, hard-to-count populations, as you mentioned, you're locked in for 10 years. So, you miss those bodies and your community, and they're not being served? Now, now, there are other impacts and you start to see that domino effect.
MD: You know, I worry that the bigger issue is that maybe the population has sort of become disinterested in a census. That they don't understand the importance of it. And, and, and maybe that's why we're looking at a year where we're going to have a disappointing participation in the census.
Um, I was in South Africa working with nonprofit organizations where they're really starting to build a culture of philanthropy and build out a robust nonprofit sector. And in their minds, the first starting point for developing their nonprofit sector was having an actual census taken in a way that’s similar to the way we do in the United States. And I guess I had never been in an environment without that kind of data and information. I didn't realize it didn't exist. And that was the first time I ever really connected the two in my mind are the nonprofits and how they work and what decisions they make and government funding and the census. It's all connected.
PC: Well, we're going to have a great conversation today because the guests we have today, one worked on the 2010 census and reaching out to those underserved, underrepresented populations and figuring out a way to make sure that they are counted, which is now a federal model going into 2020. And then we have another guest who is focused on the upcoming census as well.
TM: Let’s go.
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PC: Joining us in studio is Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. How are you doing?
Kyle Caldwell: I'm great, Patrick. Good to hear you.
PC: And all the way from Redwood City, California, Perla Ni is the founder at the Census Outreach Project. How are you today?
Perla Ni: I’m doing great!
TM: Wonderful! We are so glad to have you on, and uh, it's Perla that we're going to toss the first question too. So, really, we just want to kind of set the stage here. Why is the census important?
PN: Important for both dollars as well as power. So, it's, it’s, responsible for roughly the distribution of $700 billion dollars in federal funding each year. So that money goes to healthcare, that money goes to food stamps, highways, early childhood education. It also, politically, it is responsible for reapportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives, determines the number of electors and Electoral College, and it also establishes the boundaries for Congressional districts, state legislative districts, school districts, as well as local voting precincts.
TM: Which I think is really interesting because I always grew up knowing about the Electoral College side of all of this that you have to do the census in order to make sure that the right number of representatives are in Congress sharing the right amount of power amongst the states. But this question of funding is pretty new to me, that not only are we trying to get a good sense of the population in order to kind of have this aggregate knowledge of alright “x” people equals “y” number of congressional representatives. But, you need to know what the population is actually like in order to know what it needs and how to spread out the resources that the government takes in, right? So, that's a whole other side to this.
PN: Exactly. So when you, we pay our federal taxes every month, that money all gets sent to DC and it's a one in every 10 years that we actually get to determine how much of that money that we paid comes back to our communities. And that's the, that's this count in the census.
MD: It's like it intersects with almost everything that relates to the nonprofit sector in so many ways. I was even just thinking about arts funding and how um, arts funding is, in Michigan, for example, is even has a population component to it. That they're, want to look at the distribution of the funding across the state so that it makes sense. And uh, and I just don't think people think about that with the census-
MD: -in terms of its implications.
PN: It determines service delivery needs at the state as well as local level. Um, and it's used by lots of nonprofits for social and economic research. So, you can imagine, you know, all the health information, the household income information. A lot of that information is, is coming from the census.
TM: And that's why we're all a bit stressed out, right? [laughter] I mean the, uh, the conversations around the census for 2020 do not seem to be terribly optimistic at this moment.
PN: That's right. I mean, you know, there's much more restricted funding. Uh, they're trying to hold costs at or below the 2000, 2010 census, even though we have a lot more people to count. It is adding the online component, so, some folks will be getting forms, um, that tell them to go online to fill out the census. And there's issues around the digital divide, who has access to computers, Wi-Fi, cybersecurity, confidentiality. There is the addition of the citizenship question. There's also the political climate, you know, the deportations, the DACA, the lack of trust in government right now.
MD: So, Perla, tell us about your role then, and what's the mobilization effort look like, um, on a national level?
PN: We work with a number of national groups, as well as local groups. We focus on how nonprofits could take action and contribute to the census and ensuring a fair and accurate count. And the way that we see this, is that it's really a partnership model where nonprofits can work together with funders, as well as their city or county or their state, to ensure an accurate count. So, there is a strong role for grassroots advocacy, as well as on the ground, on the boots, uh, activities. So for instance, right now, uh, many nonprofits are working with their local city or county to conduct LUCA, which is kind of like a geography survey, where they’re ensuring that the address lists that the Census Bureau has, is complete. So that's called the Local Update of Census Addresses. And that's kind of like canvassing. You're going door to door, um, but you're not knocking on the door. You're simply visually looking to make sure that that is an address that is captured um, in the data that we have about a location.
PN: Second, after that, we see a huge role that nonprofits could play in terms of helping to recruit competent, trusted enumerators. These are the census takers who knock on your door. If you don't fill out the census, they'll come and enumerate you at your home. And we see a really strong role for the nonprofits to play – especially nonprofits that do job training, nonprofits that perhaps work with community college students, uh, nonprofits that work with perhaps retirees – who have access to a pool of locally based folks, um, who would be terrific enumerators. Uh, and there's a huge need to hire enumerators coming up in the 2020 census because the expected self-response rate is going to be low.
PC: How accurate in your mind is the census? Because if you look at a number of the hard to count populations…just your estimate on how good the census truly is when we're evaluating the number of people in this country and the populations that really nonprofits are serving. How accurate is the census?
PN: The census actually does a post mortem after each of their decennials,
PN: And, to, to, they actually come up with estimates of how, how many, what percentage of folks they think they may have missed. So they have estimates for each um, racial group as well as for cities and counties, and they actually do a really thorough job of, of disclosing, you know, what, which areas in which they fell short. Now, what's new and different about this upcoming census is there were so many unknowns, with the citizenship question, with, with the, the addition of the digital online census. Um, it's going to have, I think, a lot of implications that we simply don't know.
Um, so for instance, I was recently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, um, which is a city that traditionally has not had a problem, um, in terms of an undercount. Um, but now that there is a digital option to do this, uh, the census online, and it's the first option that most people, uh, will get, they're really worried that they have a large population of seniors and the seniors will be deterred from filling out their forms online. So a lot of new moving pieces. So it's really hard to say um, the effects of the undercount. But I think, you know, what many of those of us in the nonprofit sector are hoping for is at least a census that is accurate, as accurate as the 2010 census.
MD: So uh, Kyle. You are now at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, but prior you were at, um, the Executive Director of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. And you had an interesting role in um, the census effort 10 years ago. Can you talk about that, um, and what would some of the efforts were here?
KC: Yeah, I think it really goes well with the, the national efforts. That, what we were really concerned about is how Michigan was recorded in the 2010 census. We knew that there was going to be a really big trend towards downward pressures when it came to uh, the populations. We knew that from the 2000 census that we had not grown in population as much as other states, and we were worried about an undercount and the population shifts because of the very reasons that we've been talking about uh: resources, representation, and power. So, we brought together a coalition of nonprofit organizations to think about, “how can the sector be uh, helpful in ensuring that we get an accurate count in Michigan?”
KC: The reason we thought that we could be helpful is that during, um, the last, uh, the previous three election cycles, we had done a lot of work for voter engagement, getting people to register to vote, getting people involved in actual participation, in civic participation, and we did a lot of research. And in that uh, research we found that um, those who were engaged by a nonprofit, were far more likely to register to vote, thann they would, even if it was a friend or just a casual acquaintance. And that really became amplified among vulnerable populations. They were far more likely to trust someone who was working with them at a nonprofit or a human services agency, encouraging them and asking them, “have you registered to vote?” They didn't tell how to vote. They didn't direct people, but ask them. They also mentioned that an approach by a nonprofit led to higher levels of trust.
So, when we're thinking about the census, where you have an enumerator coming to the door, this is a perfect stranger coming through a person’s door-
MD: Terrible name. Actually it, it sounds scary.
KC: I'm coming to the coming to your door and saying, you know, “we noticed that you didn't fill out the census can, can we do something to help?” That can be somewhat intimidating. And a, but an approach by a nonprofit saying, you know, “we know that you are someone who's interested in ensuring an accurate count, Michigan, what can we do to help you be counted, be understood, be known through the census,” and then talk about the economic value in the representation.
As a result, Michigan came up with a number of unique methodologies. One is that we were able to build a model for counting the homeless. Uh, another was that this nonprofit engagement really helped in hard-to-count rural as well as urban communities. And we often forget that, um, the, the rural communities have even less access to resources. So that's, it's really important that they get counted. Michigan had the top, um, early and highest rated, um, count city in the early counts with Lavonia, Michigan for, for a state like Michigan where we have a pretty diverse population and oftentimes hard to, um, engage different communities. This was a, a really good result.
TM: Yeah. You know, this goes back to the trust conversation that we continuously have on this podcast that nonprofits are just in a unique position of being able to have access to communities that don't know whether or not they can trust people knocking on their doors. I mean, there was a great article from Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this month that quoted Arturo Vargas, uh, executive director of the Naleo Educational Fund (I hope that pronounced that correctly) um, who's talking about all of the conversations right now around “know your rights” for immigrants and for just populations writ large about, you know, you don't have to talk to police officers in certain circumstances. You don't have to let them in your door. You do not have to submit to searches without warrants. All of this extensive privacy and rights-based protections. Now we're going to say, okay, but a government official’s still gonna knock on your door and this one, you should tell them everything, like how do you say both of those things and get the information you need without also sorting and ending with the wrong result, which is to put people in a more vulnerable position.
KC: Yeah, I think it just goes in the frame of the 20, 2020 census that's being set up now with a partnership between the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the Council of Michigan foundations and with great support of the Kellogg Foundation. It's um, just the framing of the 2020 census with the same coalition here in Michigan is being called Be Counted MI 2020, and the framing of that is that it's really important that especially vulnerable populations be able to empower themselves to stand up and be counted. And that it is, that the census is about understanding who's here regardless of status, regardless of your immigration status, regardless of your housing status, you are here, you are counted. And the framing of that is really important because that will help all organizations sort of talk to their constituents about why it's important and that in some cases really thinking about how orientation is given to vulnerable populations about the census and that it’s about empowerment. It is about you being, being acknowledged is, is really important. I think the framing that um, many organizations are struggling with is the notion that somehow the census will be used as a law enforcement vehicle. That somehow the citizenship question is going to be about enforcement of the voting rights act, which the Constitution really never set forth in in how it set up the census.
MD: I was at a statewide meeting where some of the Michigan organizers of the effort here, and I imagine they are folks that are working with Perla’s organization, that when, when the opportunity came for organizations to stand up to be part of that process of organizing other nonprofits and really getting the count out in, in the UP, Michigan, that those UP organizations were the first ones, the Upper Peninsula, to step up and say we want to be a part of this. Um, and it was a, just a signal of how important the census is to kind of do a 300,000 people in this vast land of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and counting every person really matters, but also the rural count also introduces this issue of a Lots of the immigrant population in Michigan lives in a rural population.
TM: Now, it's my understanding that the citizenship question is actually already included on the American Community Survey?
KC: That's true, but a, that’s different. First off, it is not being asked as a method to enforce the voting rights act. It, it is a also, it's a voluntary survey that does not necessarily apportion resources, no representation, and so the, you know, the census every 10 years is our baseline, and it establishes how we think about acts, how we think about the, the quarterly and the annual census estimates. And the American Community Survey is different in that it is just a pulse, it is not a policy and a law enforcement vehicle. There are going to be, I think, real challenges for a number of communities, uh, to, to, in the wake of the citizenship question. And it's not going to be in the ways that many people think. So you think, in terms of the larger growing populations. Remember the census is about whose there, not about their status, not about whether they're a citizen or not a citizen. So what we've been watching population growth, people leaving Michigan to go to the other state, go to other states. We've seen some of the highest population growth states are like the state of Texas. So if we think about that and we think about what the estimates have been for the Hispanic community growing in, in the state of Texas and what an undercount means to Texas, that could be significant.
TM: So there's also this question in my mind of not only the nonprofit role as we traditionally think of it, of working in communities, but there's also this significant underfunding going on with the census, that there are, um. They recently ran sort of a test case in Rhode Island in Providence, Rhode Island of, “All right, we'll do a dress rehearsal, we'll run, run the online survey. We'll see the kinds of responses we get, we'll see what works in terms of marketing and getting people to respond, let’s see what doesn't.” Several other intended dress rehearsals were canceled for lack of funding. We're already up to over uh over $18,000,000 from foundations have been earmarked at least for census efforts. So what role are foundations kind of stepping into here in terms of using money to help the census one way or the other? I mean, they can't, as far as I understand it, give it to the Census Bureau and say, “here, here’s $20,000,000 to go do something.” But there is not only this person to person element, but there's very much a money element here too.
PN: Yeah. Um, I think, you know, philanthropy has limited much more limited resources. So how can they deploy it strategically, especially on something said so large as the census and the cost of the census. So in our experience, we've seen philanthropy, um, you know, provide funding for some of the pilots. Some of the pilots we've done around local address improvement was funded by, uh, by, by foundations. Um. We've seen foundations do matching of city or county funding, um, community foundations doing that. And that's really exciting to see. Um, and then most importantly, I think you know, that the convening power of foundations is really remarkable in bringing together the right people who can identify the hard-to-count communities and be those trusted messengers on the ground. That is a priceless um, asset that foundations have to convene the right people around the table.
KC: Yeah. I think, you know, speaking just from, from Michigan, in the 2010 census, we raised roughly about a half-a-million dollars to do the nonprofit engagement work that we did across the state. The goal this year is $4 million and that's because we know that going to a different methodology is going to be expensive. We know that there's going to be, um, a number of hard to count communities and we know that there needs to be a different structure. So what philanthropy is doing is sort of standing in on the engagement side and, and not necessarily on the methodology side.
So in Michigan there is, um, as I mentioned before, a statewide coalition with the Council of Michigan Foundation, Michigan Nonprofit Association, that's creating sort of Community Hubs that are nonprofits, community foundations in some cases who are serving as a central place in a community to encourage a census turnout. So they’ll provide resources, they'll do convening’s, they’ll provide mini grants for nonprofits to do more education and awareness in communities and be an information resource for people who have questions. And again, going back to the original premise that we know that a trust in nonprofits is higher than in government business in any other sector, this is a great way for philanthropy to stand in.
What philanthropy cannot do is substitute public investment in conducting the census. And one of the stories that I tell, and Matthew's heard me tell this a thousand different times, is that we often have this wrong perspective about the public private partnership that philanthropy and government can play with each other. And we think that now, a total reversal what it used to be: incubation and then hand over to government to scale. It is flipped, that, that government sees itself as the incubator and then scales into the private sector, largely on the backs of philanthropy. So let's take that premise first, just a half a second real quickly. We have some of the largest international foundations residing here in Michigan. If you were to take their payout, along with all the community foundations that serve all 83 counties in the state of Michigan, plus the family foundations and put it in a pot and gave it over to the state of Michigan, the payout would last 45 days. And they're done.
So let's just say “pay out, that’s silly. Why don't you use both sides of your money? Why don't you use the investment, the corpus?” Okay, great. Let's give them the Kresge Foundation corpus. Let's give them the Kellogg Foundation corpus. Let's give all the committee foundation corpus. We would be done before six months into the state fiscal year and we'd wipe it out. So there's no way that you can have philanthropy scale, and so the, the role important role philanthropy can play is this idea of engagement and education and trust building, but the actual performance of the census has to remain a public function.
MD: One of the things I find interesting is that of all the costs that go into the census, isn't it like a one percent or two percent of the population, which might be the hard to count group gets most of the cost in terms of the effort to do the Census Is that an accurate depiction, or description of how the money is spent?
TM: Well, at least it's, it's certainly the bulk of the cost goes to the enumerators who have to follow up and visit house to house.
TM: So if you're talking about population such as populations, experiences in homelessness who have no address to begin with necessarily, then I would imagine that that's the significant burden there. Rather than working with a population that, for instance has Internet access in the home and can simply hop online, answer the questions, already has that level of trust in government knows what the census is, why it's important. Says, “oh yeah, we'll just take care of this after dinner.” I mean that's got to be per person significantly less.
But I mean overall the cost of the census is just skyrocketing in the last 40, 50 years and a lot of that has to do with people are not responding the way that they used to because…I don't know why. I mean there are a million reasons why people aren't responding in the way that they used to when perhaps a lot of it is civic education or access and understanding or that it's just getting harder to do. But, um, the cost for a housing unit counting one particular housing unit went from about $16 and 1970, to $92 in 2010. That must be as an average, somebody costing $3 and somebody is costing $160.
KC: I think, I think part of the challenge is that we are also assuming that ease of participation in the census is also a lower cost proposition, and it's not necessarily so. The technology costs of going to an online system are what's eating up a lot of the census budget.
MD: I didn’t realize that.
KC: And that's why the pilot testing was so important because getting a system like this to work and work effectively and you're only gonna get one shot at it, right?
KC: In 10 years. So a lot of testing, a lot of infrastructure needs to be built up and this, don't forget, the planning for this all happened during the time when government, federal government was trying to figure out a technology solution to healthcare access. <laughter> So we've learned a lot about these complicated systems and what they really take to be more effective and more efficient and a low cost solution for people to enter into the system doesn't necessarily mean a low cost solution to create that system.
TM: Are you seeing that technology is a barrier, Perla? I mean, is that, is that something that is becoming even harder to talk about, rather than handing out forms, you know, sending people to a particular online place to do it? I mean, is that making things easier for nonprofits on the ground or harder?
PN: So self-response rates through the mail forms has been consistently, almost consistently declining since the 1970’s when the self-response rate was around 80 percent of the 1970’s um. In the 2015 survey, this self-response rate was around the 50 percentile, 52 percent. So the mail surveys, were not getting a great response anymore either. And, that could be due to, like you were saying, declining civic education, declining trust in government, just maybe people just don't open their mailboxes anymore and they're just on, on their computers all the time.
So the Census Bureau was trying to figure out a way to cut costs as well as increase in another potential channel for people to respond by. So in the 2020 census, you're going to be able to respond, uh, uh, you're going to get a mailing. The first mailing, if you are considered a hard to reach group. Then you will get a mailing that has the paper form that's about 20 percent. Eighty percent of the people will get a, a mailing that tells, instructs them to go online and fill it out online. They'll get another reminder to go online if they don't do that the first time.
Then after those two mailings, most people who still fail to respond, we'll get the paper form and uh, if they don't fill out the paper form and then they don't respond by any other ways, then the enumerators will come and visit with them. There's also going to be an option to respond by phone and they're going to have a phone line available in multiple languages that people can call and actually do the phone survey. That's relatively new. Um, we don't know how exactly it could work. It might work really well. So there's all these new channels that we're trying to get people to self-respond. And I think it'll be really interesting to see which of these are effective.
PC: Should we stick with the trust theme <laughter? because it seems like there are different rules for different moving parts of government. I mean the IRS, they would never call you. They would never reach out online. It would be through the mail, so we see that with the census, but again now you're adding that some other components and it's “who do you trust?” Especially in a world of cybersecurity and everything else out there, you may lose some people who just aren't trusting of the system.
TM: That's fascinating. Is there going to be online census fraud? But I mean that could be a thing. I mean all of the cybersecurity training we have to go through at work, have you know, “make sure that it says census.gov before you click on anything.”
MD: I was thinking that people challenging the results, like if their state declines or, or if there's significant changes like people challenging. They’ll also say that multiple people voted or multiple people responded to the census that we know fake dead people voted to the sense voted, you know, I mean um, responded to the census online. Like there's all sorts of conspiracy things that could come up.
PC: Census meddling.
KC: But I do think this goes back to making sure that the approach that people receive is from a trusted agent. And that in the same way that a nonprofit is partner with people in community, I think government partnering with nonprofits to ensure those integrity issues, will be really important. And you know, one of the things that I think, considering the diversity of communities now, staying along this trust line, cultural competence is going to be really important in the census. And so we're seeing, at least in Michigan, that need for translation services because the census may or may not have the necessary resources nor, frankly, the, the cultural competence to speak to the populations that we want to make sure get counted. So just, you know, in in Dearborn where we have the highest concentration of, uh, Middle Eastern residents in the, in the US, there are hundreds of different languages spoken. And that idea that somehow translating, uh a census outreach form into your native language in the way that you will trust it’s being translated right and well is really important. And again, I think this is where the public-private partnership can be really healthy, were nonprofits are working alongside government to make sure people can trust. And at the same time I think it'll help, uh, ensure the security and integrity of the, of the system overall.
MD: It's also interesting in the topic around gender variance. And so there's, you know, has become an important issue and people are more comfortable talking about it and, and decisions are being made around this. And then to not have any of that represented on the census form, the trusted person who's, you know, engaging, the enumerator can make or break somebody's willingness to, to fill it out. And they may say, I'm not represented on this form. I'm not going to fill it out.
KC: Let's think about that. Let's think about that in terms of where we are right now. Here we are in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we know that there is a booming population of homeless youth. And we also know that in our engagement with that population, that for many, the issue of sexual identity is one of the challenges that they're dealing with that's leading to their homelessness. Now imagine what an undercount of homeless youth will mean in the next census. The services that won't be provided, the way that we won't be thinking about essentially a lost generation, right? Because we haven't asked the question. So just because we haven't asked the question doesn't mean that issue doesn't exist. It just means it's going to be a big surprise when we try to figure out five years down the line what we should be doing about it.
TM: And that's really the other side of this coin is we've made it clear why it's important for people to participate in the census and for nonprofits to help with that. But what is it that nonprofits get out of the census themselves and a lot of it is clarity around these issues, the populations that we're trying to serve. What are the, what are the root causes? What are the main, you know, largest gaps that we can try to fill? As well as when that gets translated into distribution of housing vouchers and food service programming, programs around the country, you need to know how many people are seeking emergency shelters, seeking emergency foods sources. And if you don't know those answers as a nonprofit, you can't know how to prepare to fill those needs.
KC: We also know that 33 percent of all funding to the nonprofit sector comes from government, whether it's at the federal, state, or local level. So if you're thinking about your role as a nonprofit and you think, “well, you know, I, I just don't want to get involved in something that might be perceived as political or I don't think this is my role. I'm, I'm an arts organization. What, what role do I have an accurate census count?” Well, arts funding is tied to, to your work. Um, many arts organizations work with schools, work with kids. That funding is determined by the census. So there are a number of ways that nonprofits need to think about not just apportionment, not just a representation in, in, in raw funding, but those organizations that they serve, that they themselves are impacted by those funding decisions. And so it becomes a real interesting mission moment for many nonprofits if they stand back and examine what would be the consequences of a failed count, census count to their organization.
PC: Well, what are the consequences for a successful count or for an unsuccessful count?
KC: Well, for Michigan, we've seen what the consequences can really mean being the only state to decline in population. Um, first off, fewer, fewer resources coming, right? Secondly, we lost seats in Congress. Uh, the loss of the seats is also a representation not only of power in terms of number, but those states that have more representatives in Congress tend to have the leadership positions. So Michigan used to be one of those states that really led on a number of Senate and House committees. No longer the case. That comes back to your organization. And then I think that the final thing that I would say with, with a, a failed or an accurate count is that all the benchmarks are yours for a decade. And you, it's not like you get to do a redo two years in. So you live with these trends. So in Michigan its $1,800 a person per year, so that's $18,000 per head over the decade that you lose for every person that's not counted accurately. That has real consequences.
TM: And Perla, how would you answer that question? What would be the consequences for both a, essentially a failed census or one that's really successful?
PN: I think there's a couple of leverage points where nonprofits can really make a difference to make a successful census and one is obviously being the trusted messenger and help encourage people to fill out the census form. The other one is really encouraging people to apply to be the census fieldworkers, these enumerators. It's a very tangible local outreach opportunity for nonprofits to help source trusted messengers in their community who may speak some of the languages that are, that we know are going to be necessary to enumerate people in these areas. And we know that this is something that nonprofits are good at in terms of identifying the right messengers in a community. Someone who is culturally competent in and is excited to do this mission related work.
I think for all nonprofits, they realized that, you know, this is core to our democracy. You know, funding, research, your own funding, whether it's state funding, foundation funding, it's all depends on how many people are you serving in this, in this given area, and those numbers are all going, are pegged. All, all research numbers are pegged to the census. This is such an incredibly important facet of our democracy and our economic system and our social services system that I, I think that, you know, for all nonprofits, they're, they have a vested interest in making sure that this succeeds.
PC: Perla NI, you are the founder of the Census Outreach Project. Thank you so much for joining us on field notes and philanthropy.
PN: Thank you.
PC: And Kyle Caldwell, executive director, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. Thanks for making the long walk across the street.
KC: My pleasure. Thank you.
Field Notes in Philanthropy is a partnership of WGVU Public Media, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Grand Valley State University. Our technical producer is Rick Bierling. Joe Moran composed our theme music. The views and opinions expressed on Field Notes in Philanthropy do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy or Grand Valley State University.
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