The 2020 U.S. census is still two years away, but it has already generated a large amount of national attention and controversy — particularly after the Trump administration’s announcement in March that it would ask respondents about their immigration status.
Responding to that and to other changes, Salt Lake City recently approved funding for a full-time employee who will work specifically to coordinate the census in an effort to ensure responses even among traditionally hard-to-count populations.
And there’s a lot at stake in making sure they do.
“These numbers turn into political power and economic power,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
That’s because census figures are used to apportion political representation not only on the national and state levels but also for school boards and city councils, she said. The level of respondents also determines the amount of federal funding, distributed according to population numbers, that communities receive for a number of key programs over the course of the decade after the census.
Salt Lake City likely got less than its fair share after 2010, since several areas in the city had lower-than-average mail return rates of 73 percent or less, according to data compiled by City University of New York (CUNY).
Experts worry that changes to the 2020 census will further complicate the reach for a full count among groups that are already less likely to respond, including immigrants, refugees, along with homeless, student and elderly populations.
The major difference in the upcoming census is that this one will be conducted almost entirely online for the first time, Perlich said. That will likely present a challenge across Salt Lake County, where 15 percent of households had either no internet subscriptions or dial-up-only access in 2016, according to CUNY.
The new citizenship question has generated even more concern, including among Utah’s Latino legislators. Though the Commerce Department has said the question will help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights, they worry the new question will put undocumented residents and immigrant populations at risk of being undercounted.
“There is no doubt we would get a more accurate and better count if that question was not in play,” said state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, and a prominent advocate for a complete and accurate 2020 census.
Amid President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration and build a border wall between the United States and Mexico — and recent controversy over his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in separating parents from their children at the border — Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton said refugee and immigrant communities are “nervous.”
“Even ones that are here legally and that are documented, I think, are more hesitant to interact with the federal government because they feel that… They feel less welcome,” he said. “And I think that that deters them from filling these forms out because they’re afraid.”
Wharton hopes the city’s new coordinator can help these groups understand the importance of an accurate census and reassure them that their data won’t “be used against them.”
Though Chavez-Houck said it “remains to be seen” how a single individual could help address such deep-seated concerns with the 2020 census, she applauded Salt Lake City’s efforts in creating the new position.
“We have one time to do this right,” she said. “I’m really, really heartened by the fact that [the city is] taking the lead and saying this is important to have a staff member that is dedicated to assuring all the things we can do at a local level [are done to] make sure the count is done effectively."
That’s especially true, she said, "given some of the other issues about which we don’t have control.”
The council-funded position, for which $80,000 has been set aside so far, was approved earlier this year. Wharton said that’s a relatively small paycheck compared to the amount of federal funding the city expects to see in return.
The position has not yet been filled, and job description details are still being written, according to Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for the mayor. The position will be filled sometime this year.
Once hired, the coordinator will work to boost awareness of the census and its importance, said Erinn Summers, a policy coordinator and executive assistant to Salt Lake City’s director of community empowerment. She said that outreach will be tailored to address the barriers facing individual populations. Other duties and tasks will be informed through the city’s work with the Gardner Institute.
As the census draws nearer, national decisions around it will likely continue to be “highly political,” Perlich said, considering that there’s so much at stake not only for representation and funding but also for group visibility and recognition.
“You cannot separate the political from the personal in this data,” she said. “The data collection itself is based on scientific principle and the very most precise measures that we can get. But we are humans, and the categories that we choose to name people are constrained by, defined by, the politics and the realities that are our world.”