Utah may lose big if the state doesn’t invest in the census right now, warns Salt Lake County’s mayor

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor, Jenny Wilson, makes a few comments at the celebration of the new double-track rail line for the S-Line Sugar House Streetcar, Friday, April 5, 2019.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is sounding an alarm: Utahns are in danger of being seriously undercounted — and losing millions in federal funding — in next year’s census unless governments, philanthropists and businesses step up.

After all, Utah Latino leaders say the state’s 80,000 to 100,000 undocumented immigrants — and perhaps citizens in their extended families — could skip it over worry about deportation if they answer a proposed question about the citizenship status of household members. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule next month whether that question will be allowed legally.

This is also the first census where most people will be asked to respond via internet, and many low-income people or rural residents lack easy online access. And Wilson says Utah has high and growing numbers of usually hard-to-count groups from minorities to people who speak little English (such as refugees), young children and people moving into newly construction areas.

“This is a super challenge,” Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board Thursday. “We could even see some of those populations decline in the census count, and we know that’s not true.”

While Salt Lake County is spending $240,000 to help reach hard-to-count groups, she worries that too few others are stepping up to help calm the fears of people living in Utah and show why participation is important to obtain federal funding that is often based on population.

The state government, for example, appropriated zero for such efforts. In comparison, California is spending $154 million.

(Michelle R. Smith | AP file photo) This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census.

Gov. Gary Herbert had requested $70,000 this year for some targeted online ads for hard-to-count groups, and Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, pushed for an additional $500,000. The Legislature provided nothing — and Utah is depending on federal efforts and some volunteer local work.

“We should not be penny-wise and pound foolish,” Wilson said. “We should be in the driver’s seat of moving solutions.”

If the state waits until next year’s general session, Wilson said it would be too late. The census starts next March, about the time the Legislature would finish its general session.

“We need the money right now,” said Zee Xiao, director of Salt Lake County’s Office of New Americans.

She said now is the time to reach out to nonprofit groups and others who work with minority communities, and are trusted voices who could help overcome fears and persuade them to participate — including delivering messages that the census cannot legally share with others how individuals answer questions, which Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham stressed in a Utah visit this week.

Wilson said if the Legislature held a special session, it could consider providing more money soon. But she doubts that is likely, and suggests that the state and other local governments sweep through budgets to find some money without needing new appropriations.

“The fact is we can’t survive with just volunteers,” Xiao said, noting that training, printing and other activities take money. “When we talk to nonprofits, they are not going to do this for free because they are already strapped as it is.”

She adds that developing and coordinating different messages for various hard-to-count groups could be challenging and expensive.

“I think the message has to be different, whether you’re targeting an immigrant community, a single mom or a college student,” she said. She urges philanthropic groups and businesses to pitch in, saying they often use and benefit from census data — if it is accurate.

Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, also said in the meeting that hard-to-count groups are the ones that may benefit the most from extra participation — but they need to hear that from trusted voices.

If they are undercounted, “We lose money on food stamps we lose money on Head Start. Obviously those communities that are hardest to count … are going to be most harmed by the lack of funding”

Wilson said, “Not only do we want to count everyone because it’s just downright fair. But it’s also because we’re at a significant financial disadvantage if we have an undercount."