Stegmann made the point at a gathering in Portland Aug. 1, when 20 county-level government leaders met to talk about economic mobility and the 2020 census. The conference, organized by the National Association of Counties (NACo) and hosted by Stegmann, brought together a cohort of elected leaders who are utilizing best practices to impact economic mobility across the United States. Of the 20 jurisdictions, Multnomah County was one of three selected to showcase work around evidence-driven programs, policy, and development.
“While the American Dream may look different across each of our jurisdictions, working together in this cohort gives us an incredible opportunity to learn from each other,” Stegmann said at the conference’s opening reception.
Census data is particularly important to counties as it is used to determine where nearly $900 billion in federal funding will end up. Funding is allocated based on population and geographic area, which means communities that are harder to count in 2020 may receive fewer federal dollars for things like healthcare, transportation projects, school lunches, affordable housing and SNAP benefits.
Census data is also used to determine congressional district boundaries and ensure that everybody living in the United States is represented in Congress. Because of Oregon’s growing population, the state is expected to gain a sixth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent estimates.
Because the Census is so important, and only happens once every ten years, state governments across the nation have partnered with nonprofits, community organizations and other stakeholders to form Complete Count Committees with the goal of reaching people who might not otherwise be counted, such as people experiencing homelessness, immigrant communities and low-income households.
Commissioner Stegmann represents local and regional government on Oregon’s Complete Count Committee. She says government bodies are uniquely positioned to help with the efforts. “We’re the safety net provider. So by the very nature of the work that we do, hard-to-count communities are the folks that we serve,” Stegmann said.
She also stressed the importance of participating in the census. “By being counted you are bringing more money, more resources directly back into your neighborhood and to your family,” Stegmann explained. “This is one issue that in my opinion we should all be able to coalesce around and say ‘Yes, we need to count everyone.’”
During the recent NACo conference, the county-level government leaders met inside the Gladys McCoy Health Department Building in Old Town and shared stories of hard-to-count communities in their jurisdictions, along with strategies on how to include everyone in 2020.
Fulton County (Georgia) Commissioner Natalie Hall talked about distrust of the census within Atlanta’s black community. “African-Americans who were slaves were counted as property or stock for the plantation owners, so it stems from that negative history,” she said. That trauma and distrust has been passed down through the generations, “so we are still combating that historical thought process.”
Supervisor Lena Fowler of Coconino County, Arizona said Native Americans have their own historical reasons to be skeptical of the federal government’s motives. Plus, she said, it can be hard to reach people living in remote areas on tribal land. “On Navajo [land], we’re all P.O. box. We don’t have street addresses in many areas,” Fowler said. “So we have to deliver the message over the radio. Print doesn't do any good.”
One thing on almost every commissioner's mind was the Trump Administration’s hostility toward immigrants and how that might distort the results of the 2020 census.
County Executive Laura Curran of Nassau County, New York mentioned Trump’s controversial plan to add a citizenship question to the census, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in June. Even so, “just the fact that it was out there I think is going to drive more people into the shadows,” Curran said.
Commissioner Stegmann agreed. “There's a huge amount of fear that's being instigated by the federal government – that is intentional – to attack and dehumanize immigrants and refugees,” she said. “We've got to acknowledge the motives of the administration leading our country right now.”
Another issue on many attendees’ minds was the fact that next year’s census will be the first one administered primarily online.
Mobile County, Alabama Commissioner Merceria Ludgood worried that this could affect census response rates n her county. “I think there is an assumption in a lot of places that everyone has internet access,” she said. “But not everybody is connected, and the quality of the connection differs greatly.”
Multnomah County officials are thinking about internet access, too.
Jon Worona is Director of Content Strategy at Multnomah County Library and also represents the Digital Inclusion Network, a coalition of community groups and stakeholders that aims to break down barriers to digital equity.
Worona told the officials that the unequal distribution of internet infrastructure isn’t always by accident.
He described a phenomenon called ‘digital redlining,’ where, like lenders and property owners of the past, digital service providers can discriminate against low-income neighborhoods in their deployment of services such as high-speed internet. Worona offered an example of the impact this can have: Imagine a high school student trying to do their homework in a household with either slow or no internet.
Using data, Worona said, “we can prevent digital redlining in our area and we can mobilize our services, the assets we have, to help folks have their chance of completing the census.”
For Multnomah County’s complete count efforts, the Gresham neighborhood of Rockwood has become a focal point.
“I know from growing up in Rockwood that there's a huge amount of poverty,” Commissioner Stegmann said. “I know that it's a very young community. I know it's a very diverse community.” These are factors she hopes to build into Multnomah County’s outreach and strategies for information sharing about the upcoming census.
Worona said there is a striking overlap between the places most at risk of marginalization and those with the lowest internet connectivity. “You’ll find that the Rockwood area and some others are facing the biggest challenges and they are digitally excluded in our society,” he said. “They don't have [internet] access either because it’s not available or because it’s cost prohibitive.”
Despite the challenges of counting everyone in 2020, Commissioner Stegmann sees the census as a way to fight historic injustices as well as the current climate of fear throughout the United States. “The good news is that we at the County – and our service providers and our nonprofits and our faith-based partners – have this opportunity through the census to rise up and speak up for our communities,” Stegmann said.
She thinks it will be a win for the Trump Administration if people don’t participate, because it will mean less representation in congress and less federal funding for the communities that need it most. “It’s about power and money,” Stegmann said. “We know not everybody can run for office or volunteer, but you can stand up and be counted.”
If you would like to get involved in your own local 2020 Census efforts, please contact Commissioner Stegmann’s office at District4@multco.us or 503-988-5213.