Tony’s Meat Market in Central Falls prominently features a stack of “Nuevos Horizontes,” a local Spanish language newspaper. The paper’s April 9 issue on display devoted two front-page stories to the potential impact of the 2020 census on the city’s community members.
Providence County — which includes Rhode Island’s largest cities — is currently the only active test site in the United States for the 2020 census. Local leaders have warned that the test run is experiencing low turnout rates due to poor funding, little publicity and the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Test census and census stakes
On March 16, residents of Providence County were notified by mail and directed to fill out an online form available through July 31, according to New York Regional Director of the Census Bureau Jeffrey Behler, who oversees the test run. The census test consists of 10 questions and takes about 10 minutes to complete.
While three locations were originally selected as test sites for the census — Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, West Virginia; Providence County, R.I.; and Pierce County, Washington — “due to budget issues,” the test run is only being conducted in Providence, Behler said. The demographically diverse county represents a “microcosm of the nation,” he added.
Though the 2018 test run count is not official, it provides a way to ensure that the mechanisms necessary to carry out the 2020 census are working properly and will attain an accurate count, Behler said. Providence County includes about 263,000 housing units, all of which will need to complete the census test. The official census carries significant political weight — in the 2015 fiscal year, 132 programs referenced U.S. Census Bureau data to determine the allocation ofover $675 billion in federal funding.
“We all need (federal) funding for public safety, health, education, housing and the allocation,” Central Falls Mayor James Diossa told The Herald. “Knowing how many people are in a community is important for (when) we allocate a budget or put together programming, and (it) needs to be accurate.”
Rhode Island is also in danger of losing one of its two congressional district seats. If the state is found to have 157 fewer residents than its last count, its representation will be cut in half, according to analyst Kimball Brace, working off data from 2017 population projections. Indeed, Rhode Island has the smallest average district size — 527,624 — of any state, according to the Providence Mayor’s Office.
There has been no coordinated media or official publicity campaign in Rhode Island to inform the public of the census test, Behler confirmed.
“The only time I have interacted with the Census Bureau is to help them direct people to apply (to work) for the Census Bureau,” Diossa said. “There’s really no information out there. There’s nothing. It’s almost as if it’s being set up to fail.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has advertised the test run on social media and on monthly radio appearances to promote participation, according to Ben Smith, communications specialist for the Mayor’s Office. In addition, the City of Providence has developed a Complete Count Committee, which establishes partnerships among institutions and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and Brown.
“The members of the Complete Count Committee have been performing community outreach within the populations that they each serve,” Smith wrote in an email to The Herald.
“The important thing in the lead up to 2020 will be whether R.I. political leaders and the nonprofit community step up to encourage participation,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a non-partisan political accountability organization. This places an additional burden on municipalities to pick up the responsibilities.
Citizenship question and Central Falls turnout
But the U.S. Department of Commerce’s March 26 announcement of its plans to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census has alarmed local leaders about census turnout. The test census does not currently include a question on citizenship; nevertheless, community members are confused about whether it does and whether the 2020 census will feature the question, according to Steven Brown, executive director of the R.I. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“A question like this will suppress responses to the census,” Brown told The Herald. “I’m convinced this is not some negligent act on (the Trump Administration’s) part. I think they fully understand the ramifications of placing that question on the census.”
The census has historically been racially biased in terms of the people it counts and those who go uncounted. For instance, while both the 2000 and the 2010 censuses saw the white population overcounted by around 1 percent, the Hispanic population was undercounted by well over 1 percent and the black population undercounted by over 2 percent, according to a review issued by the Census Bureau in 2012.
On a Saturday morning in Central Falls, a dozen adult students finished up their work in a GED mathematics class run by Progreso Latino, an advocacy organization.
“When I was at work, the first reaction people had (to the census) was, ‘I’m not doing it,’” said Yesenia Hawes, a student who works at a manufacturing plant. “People are afraid.”
Students have been asking their teachers about whether they should participate in any aspect of the census process, said Ester Acevedo, adult education coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages for Progreso Latino. She added that some of her neighbors are refusing to complete the census.
According to the 2016 American Community Survey, Latino individuals make up 63.8 percent of Central Fall’s population . The citizenship question puts Central Falls authorities in a difficult position, Diossa said. He wants to encourage people to participate so that Central Falls can receive the benefits of federal resources. At the same time, he understands the legitimate fears that immigrant or undocumented individuals might have of not wanting to share their citizenship status with the federal government.
“The confusion around the census and the fear around it, we’re afraid, is going to dissuade people from filling it out,” Elorza said in a statement.
“The Department of Commerce is not able to determine definitively how inclusion of a citizenship question on the decennial census will impact responsiveness,” wrote Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a public letter that justified the inclusion of the citizenship question. “However, even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns.”
States, meanwhile, are pushing back. Rhode Island has joined California, New York and 14 other states in a lawsuit against the government on the grounds that the question is unconstitutional.
“For the entire history of the republic, … it’s always been the total number of persons — not citizens, not those who are legally residing in the United States,” Marion said. “People who aren’t citizens still pay taxes, and the census helps determine how much those taxes come back to pay for the services that everyone consumes.” Article 1 of the Constitution states that all persons must be counted for the census, Marion added.
Both Elorza and Diossa stressed that the question politicized what was intended to be an apolitical process.
“The long-term of this inclusion (of the citizenship question) comes down to redistricting and gerrymandering,” Diossa said. “People want to be able to draw districts for elected offices, etc., and they know that there are states where they define the lines based on voter populations.”
“A lot of people who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, they might be afraid that by sharing this info with the government, they might be hurt in some way,” said Tatyana Tsangarakis-Almeida, Citizenship and Immigration Services program director for the Dorcas International. “They have very basic concerns from when (President) Trump got elected.”
Diossa said that the Census Bureau needs to work closely with local community organizations to address the concerns of certain populations — such as undocumented people — that might be wary of participating.
Looking ahead to 2020
Behler declined to comment or speculate on the citizenship question’s impact on the test run or the 2020 census. However, in response to concerns about publicity and community outreach, Behler noted that in 2020, the Census Bureau will have over 1,000 “partnership specialists” to help assist mayors and organizations administer the census.
“While I certainly understand their concerns, 2020 is going to be completely different when it comes to the ability to provide resources and staff for messaging,” Behler said. “We’ll have a national media campaign, a local media campaign, we’ll have national partnerships. The goal of this test is to really test the system and the interface with the public, not the partnership program or the media program.”
The 2019 fiscal year budget summary for the Census Bureau calls for additional funding in order for the test to be administered effectively.
“The scope and design of the 2020 census can no longer be altered,” the report noted. “If the Census Bureau does not receive the funding requested for the entirety of this work, the quality of the 2020 census will suffer.”
Behler remains optimistic both about the test run and the upcoming nationwide census.
Census enumerators will follow up with households or individuals who have not responded with in-person visits from May 9 to July 24. Group quarters — places where individuals are housed together, like prisons, universities and assisted living centers — will be counted between July 18 and Aug. 24.
College students who attend most of the state’s universities will not be living on campus during the enumeration period, Behler said. However, for the 2020 census, enumerators will likely visit college campuses around January and February, he added.
Students living off-campus in Providence County are currently able to respond to the census survey online, Behler said.
“Given that we don’t have a robust media campaign … seeing the response we’re getting so far is fantastic,” Behler said. “The system is working.”