Billions of dollars for the state — and millions locally — are on the line.
Population counts in the upcoming census determine how much money the federal government distributes to states and geographically defines state legislative districts.
Many groups are concerned people won’t be counted in the April 1, 2020, census, so they’ve started taking donations that will go toward census outreach, communication and encouragement for people to return their census questionnaires.
During a recent workshop for College Place City Council to discuss the census, City Manager Mike Rizzitiello presented information on how accurate counts affect the county and presented timelines for gathering census data.
“We plan to put information on the city website and the newsletter promoting the upcoming census in Engligh, Spanish and Russian,” Rizzitiello said, adding the city will work with others on a regional strategy.
The Walla Walla County has some of the state’s hardest-to-count areas, including along U.S. Highway 12, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management website.
One area had a response score during the last count of 27.9 percent, with about 76.4 percent returning their 2010 census. On average, 69.1 percent of the county mailed back their questionnaires, which required more expensive in-person follow-ups to try and get more responses.
According to the state website, reasons why responses were low could include people being fearful of the government protecting respondents’ privacy and/or sharing the information, being unaware/unconvinced of the census’s impact on their lives, or being uncomfortable using the internet.
To help reach hard-to-count areas, the Sherwood Trust and Blue Mountain Community Foundation earlier this year formed the Walla Walla County Census 2020 Fund, in partnership with the Washington Census Equity Fund, which consists of 20 philanthropies. The group is collecting money for outreach.
Sherwood Trust CEO Danielle Garbe Reser said it’s the first time to their knowledge a local fund has been created for the census.
“The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, and it is critical that all residents of our county know about this civic obligation and opportunity to participate in helping our communities thrive,” Garbe Reser wrote in an email. “We need an accurate account to ensure this region receives its fair share of federal funding over the next decade.”
Sherwood Trust gave a $20,000 grant to BMCF to jump-start the fund earlier this year, according to a release, targeting hard-to-count communities like Walla Walla.
Garbe Reser said the county project is determining where to put the money.
“Based on the percentage of our local hard to count community and the challenges of working across a large county, it would be ideal to raise up to $50,000-$75,000 in this fund to conduct thorough education and outreach efforts,” Garbe Reser wrote.
Walla Walla County Census 2020 Fund money will be kept locally, with prioritization coordinated in the state’s efforts to avoid duplicates. Those interested in donating can visitbluemountainfoundation.org.
Another initiative, the Washington Census Equity Fund, was created by Philanthropy Northwest, of which BMCF and Sherwood Trust are members. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation kicked off the statewide fund, and it now has more than $1.1 million. For more information, visit philanthropynw.org/washington-census-equity-fund.
The money raised, and later used for outreach, could see a return investment.
“In Washington state, we receive approximately $2,000 per person each year in federal funding that is allocated with formulas that use census data,” Garbe Reser wrote. “That equates to nearly $20,000 per person over the 10-year period between each census.”
Sixteen large federal assistance programs distributed money to Washington State based on decennial census-driven statistics in fiscal year 2015, according to a “Counting for Dollars 2020 Project” data sheet by The George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy. The total was $13.7 billion, or about $1,914 per person. Those programs included the Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid), with $8.5 billion; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), with $1.5 billion; and Medicare Part B (Supplemental Medical Insurance)-Physicians Fee Schedule Services, with $1.1 billion.
And in fiscal year 2016, the state received $16.7 billion through 55 federal spending programs based on data derived from the 2010 census, according to the report.
The census also goes toward things like the city’s Community Development Block Grant — which helps improve the city’s homelessness and more — according to coordinator Jennifer Beckmeyer. She said its allocation for 2019 was $394,643.
“The formula to calculate our grant amount is fairly complicated, but is definitely driven by census data,” Beckmeyer wrote in an email. “The biggest factor that HUD (Housing and Urban Development) takes into consideration is the percentage of the population living in poverty and age of our housing stock, so just as important as the actual population count is accuracy in the socio-economic data for each household in Walla Walla that is also gathered by the Census Bureau.”
Another organization affected by the census is the Blue Mountain Action Council, which provides money and other resources to people in need. One of those is to help people pay their electric bill, CFO Rick Claridge said. To help, the Department of Energy (through the state Department of Commerce) awarded BMAC $539,918 in October 2018 to cover through March 2020, according to BMAC’s audit report. Those dollars are based on a formula calculated with the number of respondents who identify themselves in certain socio-economic demographics.
Another fund, for helping people weatherize their home, was $291,796, awarded in October 2017 to last through September 2019.
However, those distributions likely were based on undercounting or inaccuracy, according to studies.
The GWU’s Institute of Public Policy report, “Estimating Fiscal Costs of a Census Undercount to States” measured the fiscal impact of a census undercount from five Department of Health and Human Services programs, which use the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage to calculate payments: Medicaid, state Children’s Health Insurance Program, Title IV-E Foster Care, Title IV-E Adoption Assistance, and Child Care and Development Fund Matching Funds.
“Those grant programs use the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage ... to determine reimbursements to and payments from each state government,” it said.
The report estimated Washington lost $39 in those programs per person who was missed in the 2010 census in fiscal year 2015.
However, the report was clear on its estimations: it was only for programs that relied on the FMAP. It also said it planned to research other monetary impacts.
“The fiscal impact on a state due to a 2020 census undercount would be far greater than that caused by the five HHS programs covered in this report.”