Making the Census Count
For Latinos, it's more important than ever
By Patricia Guadalupe
While businesses have shut down and their customers have stayed home to stop the coronavirus from spreading, one particular activity has continued: the decennial count of the U.S. population, known as the Census. It’s mandated by the Constitution and more than 300 federal programs are funded based on the data obtained, representing over $2 trillion for a whole variety of public services and needs, from infrastructure and mass transportation, to school and healthcare.
“The Census means representation and fair share funding for the community. Every year millions of dollars are allocated to the community thanks to Census data, including programs related to Covid-19. Those are tied to Census data. So in order for the community to get its fair share of funding, it is definitely important to fill out the Census,” says María Olmedo-Malagón, Program Manager for the 2020 Census Communications Campaign at the U.S. Census Bureau. “We only get one chance every ten years for an accurate count. That’s why it’s so critical that we continue this conversation.”
One issue Latino groups have been concerned about is an undercount, a situation that could be made worse by the pandemic. The 2010 Census missed 1.5 percent of the U.S. Latino population – a Census estimate that Latino groups still consider to be on the conservative side and which was challenged by several large cities (where a majority of Latinos live) as too low. Since Latinos are the largest ethnic minority group in the country, the stakes are high this year.
“While it is still early to tell, we know that the communities that are being devastated by Covid-19 are often the same communities that are undercounted. Our concern is that disinformation efforts are increasing the level of distrust and threatening people's economic stability. We can no longer reach our community through person-to- person contact, which makes all the difference when engaging individuals who may have questions or not understand the purpose of the Census,” says Sindy Benavides, National Chief Executive Officer at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
“We are extremely concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to a serious undercount of the Latino population,” adds Arturo Vargas, CEO and Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. “Latino households have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of health, finances, and socially – bringing attention to the Census amid the crisis has been difficult. We also are concerned that the Census Bureau may not have the workforce or capacity to complete the Census count through its field operations, especially Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU) – the enumerators knocking on the doors. Even if 65% of households respond, the only way the Census Bureau gets data from the remaining 35% and gets to 100% is through NRFU and other field operations. This adds greater risk to the fear many Latinos may have to be counted.”
Both LULAC and NALEO are part of a coalition of organizations participating in a Comcast NBCUniversal Telemundo campaign to ensure that every Latino and Latina in the country is counted. Known as Hazte Contar (Get Counted), it seeks to increase participation in the Census, which will improve quality of life through a fair distribution of federal funds. It’s part of Telemundo’s award-winning corporate social responsibility initiative, El Poder en Ti (The Power Within You).
“The pandemic is having an impact on all aspects of our lives and we are very concerned about what this means for the Census and long-term for our community. That is why Hazte Contar is so important. We must ensure that all of us are counted in order to have political representation and so that necessary funding resources reach our local communities and states,” says Benavides. “That is why LULAC continues to work closely with the Census Bureau and national partners like NALEO. We are shifting strategies to increase online ad targeting in key regions of the country like the Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast part of the country. We are holding virtual town halls in collaboration with multiple partners in English and Spanish. We are also doing phone banking and reminding LULAC members, families and friends to complete the Census.”
“NALEO Educational Fund, like the rest of the world, has been forced to pivot to doing all of its outreach and programming through digital formats,” adds Vargas. “We have made extensive use of various social media platforms as well as paid and earned media to continue our efforts to encourage all Latino households to self-respond to the Census. Our efforts have included targeted campaigns, including the Latino Census Week of Action in mid-April, when paper forms began being delivered in the mail, the Censo de Mayo Virtual Town Hall with national Latino leaders and the ambassador from Mexico to the United States, and a Mother’s Day themed campaign.”
Both NALEO and LULAC had been conducting Census outreach even before the pandemic hit, in the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico, through workshops and forums on how to fill out the forms, including assistance in Spanish. Since 2012, both groups have been a part of the Census outreach coalition, and earlier this year LULAC sponsored a forum in Washington, D.C. aimed at promoting Census participation among Latino youth.
“The Census determines so many things, including congressional representation, and representation has been something that the Latino community has long been deprived of,” said Raymond Solórzano, a Northwestern University student who participated in the youth engagement conference in the nation’s capital. “So, of course, it’s important to fill it out.”
The importance of participating in the Census and what that means for the Latino community is a key reason why a media company like Telemundo launched the Hazte Contar campaign, says Christina Kolbjornsen, Senior Vice President of Corporate and External Affairs at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises: “Communities of color have historically been undercounted and so we feel it’s important, as well as our responsibility, to raise awareness about the Census and about participating. Without a doubt the future of America is directly tied to Latinos, and as the number-one Spanish network for Hispanics, Telemundo is uniquely positioned to inform and provide our community with the necessary resources to get involved and participate in the Census. Even while our community is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, we still need to keep our community informed about the Census. In particular, we are emphasizing the ease of completing the form online, by phone, or by mail. It’s critical for our community to know that it is easy to fill out and it’s completely confidential.”
It’s a point that Jacquelyn Puente, Executive Director for External Affairs at Comcast, also wants to emphasize. Comcast has supported the expansion of the Hazte Contar Campaign and also tried to leverage resources from the highly successful Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost, high-speed Internet access to those most in need, an initiative that has gained greater significance since the pandemic forced many to shelter in place and go online.
“The very same people that are served by Internet Essentials are those who need to be counted, who need the resources, who need to be informed,” says Puente. “People who don’t have Internet access at home are going to probably be the last people to consider filling out the Census online. Getting the information out to the community, and letting them know how important it is to fill out the Census and be counted is truly essential – and we are proud of our Internet Essentials partners that have been able to focus the connectivity message on the important issue of the 2020 Census.”
Puente adds that Comcast has added new technology to its Census campaign – which now includes an app on the X1 voice-activated remote that turns the television set into a tutorial on the Census when “Census” or “Censo” is mentioned. It includes information on how to complete the Census form and why it’s important. “As things become and more digital, it’s easier to fill it out online. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the value of doing it online,” she says.
Ironically, the pandemic has actually caused an uptick in the response rate so far, since the Census Bureau and its partner organizations have focused their efforts on ensuring that respondents fill out the form online. “I think the fact that we focused on the message that the Census was available online has been very helpful in the response rate,” says Olmedo-Malagón. “The response rate has been higher than expected.”
“We’re really pleased to see that not only do people have positive responses to the outreach campaign, they’re sharing that it’s a good experience to participate, and that they’re encouraging others to respond,” says Carlos Alcázar, co-founder of Culture One World, the Washington-based firm responsible for Census outreach in Spanish, which includes print, broadcast, digital, and social media.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure an accurate count, the Census Bureau has extended community outreach through October, and that includes reaching out to rural communities throughout the country in Spanish. “It has provided an opportunity for us to continue to impress upon our community the importance and benefits of the Census,” says Olmedo-Malagón.