Census officials view some Utah neighborhoods as among the nation’s toughest to count

Its bureaucratic name is Census Tract 1027.02, part of Poplar Grove in west Salt Lake City. Census Bureau officials and academics also have a different description for the neighborhood: one of the toughest in the nation to count in next year’s census.

It is full of traditionally hard-to-count groups: undocumented immigrants who fear responding might lead to deportation; refugees who don’t speak English well; and low-income folk too busy trying to survive to bother with the once-every-decade count.

The area of about 4,100 people — between Redwood Road and the Jordan River, and North Temple and 500 South — is 83% minority, including 67% Latino. Also, 40% of residents are foreign-born. About 29% live in poverty. And one of every five households lacks someone over age 14 who speaks English “very well,” according to Census Bureau estimates.

Back in 2010, one of every three residents in this tract did not initially respond to the census — so follow-up counters had to be sent to their doors. This year, as Americans for the first time will be asked to fill out census forms online, about one of every nine residents in this tract lack internet access at home.

It is just one of two dozen-plus census tracts in Salt Lake County that are considered to be among the “hardest to count in the country” in maps generated by the Census Bureau and by academics working through the City University of New York. The classification is based on past census response rates and the presence of groups traditionally undercounted.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Those tracts are in Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, West Valley City, Taylorsville, Midvale and West Jordan.

Others statewide are in Ogden, Clearfield, Logan, American Fork, Orem, Provo, Santaquin, Price, Summit County, Sanpete County, Tooele County and the Ute and Navajo tribal reservations.

An estimated 9% of Utah’s residents live in these hard-to-count neighborhoods, as do 12% of Salt Lake County residents.

If residents go uncounted, it could cost their cities and the state plenty in lost federal money distributed through population-based formulas. It may hurt representation in Congress and the Legislature. And it may mess up planning by local governments and businesses.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau) The 2020 Census will begin next March.

Salt Lake County officials are spending $240,000 to help persuade tough-to-count groups to participate, but efforts statewide may be hobbled because the state appropriated no such money — although state officials belatedly are looking at ways to provide some. Federal officials say they are confident their own preparations to encourage participation in tough areas are going well.

Following is a look at some of the tough-to-count areas and groups, and efforts to reach them.

Latinos & undocumented immigrants

Historically, Latinos are among undercounted groups. Now a proposal by the Trump administration to question respondents whether they are U.S. citizens has created fear of possible deportations and is expected to aggravate undercounting.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month whether to allow the question, which Trump administration officials say is needed to help enforce civil rights laws.

Even if the court throws the question out, “The damage is already done, at least on the research and the focus groups that we have done in the Latino community,” says Ze Min Xiao. As director of Salt Lake County’s Office for New Americans, Xiao is helping organize its efforts to reach out to hard-to-count groups.

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) In this April 23, 2019, file photo, immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census.

“There is a lot of fear in the community” about the census amid anti-immigration rhetoric by President Donald Trump, she says. The county has even seen a drop in immigrants using food stamps or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. “The need is still there; they are just too afraid to apply for it.”

Studies estimate between 80,000 and 100,000 undocumented immigrants live in Utah. Some Latino leaders say there have been discussions in their community about people boycotting the citizenship question or the census itself. About 14% of the Utah population is Latino, as is 18% in Salt Lake County.

In some hard-to-count areas, the percentage is much higher. In Salt Lake City, one tract in Glendale is 33% Hispanic; one in Rose Park is 57%; and one in Poplar Grove is 67%.

Elsewhere in Salt Lake County, one tough-to-count tract in West Valley City is 53% Hispanic. One in South Salt Lake is 45%.

When Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham visited Utah this year, he stressed that immigrants should not fear answering the citizenship question because federal law bans his agency from sharing individuals’ information with immigration officials or anyone else. However, such bans were lifted in World War II to help put Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, speaks at the Kem Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City on Tuesday May 7, 2019.

Evan Curtis, co-chairman of the state’s Complete Count Committee, has said that his group intends to use volunteer trusted voices in the Latino community to spread the message that participating in the census is safe and will benefit their neighborhoods.

Sergio Martinez, partnership coordinator for the Census Bureau in Utah, said the agency has formed 250 partnerships with groups in Utah ranging from the state to cities, nonprofit groups, businesses and even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to act as trusted voices to explain the census.

But Xiao said Salt Lake County is finding that many potential “trusted voices are struggling whether or not they support this” — and may not help. They wonder how good those government guarantees of privacy are from the Trump administration. “They ask, ‘What if things change tomorrow? Then I’m going to ruin my trust with the community.' ”

So Xiao said the county may take a different tack.

“Knowing that we cannot 100% guarantee to the community that their data is safe, we plan to lay out the pros and cons of participating” to let people make informed choices, she says.

For example, she plans to stress that the question about U.S. citizenship would ask if respondents are citizens, but not about their legal status. “There are many noncitizens who are here legally, so how could they use that question to deport someone?” she asks.

Also, the county plans to stress “the consequences to your community if you don’t answer” in lost federal money and representation. Finally, she said it likely will note that federal law requires participation, and not answering could attract follow-up attention and potential legal punishment.

Martinez, the partnership coordinator, said he also sees part of the Census Bureau’s role as educating immigrant communities about the effort, and allowing them to make informed decisions. He said that in 2010, it hired only three partnership specialists in Utah to seek trusted-voice partners. This year, it hired 11 — including five who speak Spanish. Others also speak Tongan, Arabic and Chinese.


Refugees comprise another group that is historically undercounted. Those in Utah tend to be concentrated in places such as western Salt Lake City and West Valley City.

They are here legally and generally would not be concerned with the citizenship question, Xiao says. “With them, it is more of a matter of education. Many of them don’t know what the census is."

Mallory Bateman, coordinator for the State Data Center, which analyzes Census Bureau data locally, says challenges arise because many refugees come from war-torn countries where governments are not trusted.

“So it’s a little tricky to all of a sudden be told, ‘This form is from the government. Fill it out and trust that everything will be fine,' ” she said. “If you’re a refugee, that can be kind of scary.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Women of the World presents its 8th annual award ceremony at the Salt Lake County Government Center, Dec. 8, 2018, as a celebration of successes including educational, service, and employment milestones by refugee women.

Xiao said most refugees already work with refugee centers, which can be trusted voices to help explain what the census is and help people to complete it. A big disadvantage is that many speak languages for which the Census Bureau may offer no translation.

While the Census Bureau says it is providing translation to languages spoken by 97% of Americans, "refugees tend to be the other 3%,” Xiao says.

Another complication is that only Census Bureau employees can help people fill out questionnaires because they are required by law to keep information confidential. Volunteer translators can advise people on filling out questionnaires, but not actually help them do it. That’s challenging for some who are illiterate even in their own languages, Xiao says.

Polynesian immigrants

Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders historically tend to be undercounted. About 48,000 full or multiracial Polynesians live in Utah, and about half of them reside in Salt Lake County.

Former West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder, now a state legislator, liked to point out that among U.S. cities with at least 100,000 population, his city had the second-most Polynesians nationally, behind only Honolulu.

Unfortunately for the upcoming census, Xiao said much of what the Census Bureau has planned for its outreach and advertising appears to be targeted for the state of Hawaii.

“It’s very frustrating to the Pacific Islander community here,” Xiao said she heard in focus groups. “None of the Pacific Islander languages are being translated or included in the languages” given major support by the bureau.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) High Talking Chief Namulauulu Tavan joins members of Salt Lake City's Pacific Islander community as he blesses the Arts of the Pacific gallery in the newly renovated Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, Aug. 8, 2017. Elders from the local Maori and Samoan communities performed ceremonial dances, chants and oration to welcome the objects back on view and to thank Museum staff for continued care of their cultural objects.

She said the county plans to work largely with churches and other community leaders to push participation and provide needed help.

Among some of the hardest-to-count areas in Utah, one tract in West Valley City is 5% Pacific Islander, one in South Salt Lake is 7% and one in Midvale is 9%.

Other groups & areas

One of the groups with the largest undercounts nationally is children under age 5 — and Utah is known for its large families and high number of children.

Census officials have a variety of theories about why children are undercounted, including that some live in separated families where the father and mother each think the other will count them. Some suspect that busy young parents find it hard to focus on filling out the questionnaire.

Xiao says local officials hope to reach out to parents through pediatricians and programs such as Head Start to help urge participation and explain the rules about who should include children in their reporting.

Some areas where undercounting of children could make a difference include some in South Salt Lake, Rose Park and West Valley City where children under 5 make up about 10% of the population.

Low-income people also tend to be undercounted, perhaps again because they are busy trying to make ends meet and don’t focus on the need to fill out questionnaires.

Some areas included among the hardest to count have high poverty rates. That includes about 29% in some tracts in Poplar Grove, Rose Park and South Salt Lake; 22% in Taylorsville; 23% in West Jordan; and up to 38% in West Valley City.

Many of the tough-to-count tracts also are near universities in Logan, Provo and Salt Lake City. Bateman said that likely is because of confusion over whether students should be counted for the census there or at home with their parents.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Student housing, front, on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, May 9, 2018.

Rules say people should be counted where they spend most of the year. So usually, full-time students should likely be counted where they are attending school.

Similarly, some tough-to-count tracts are in resort areas, where many census questionnaires often go unanswered because part-time residents may not be living there when they are sent — such as near Park City. Again, residents should be counted where they spend most of their time.

Finally, American Indian reservations have hard-to-count populations. Many homes there lack street addresses, so sending materials would be difficult. In consultation with tribes, the Census Bureau plans to send locally hired workers directly to homes to seek answers for the count.

Many challenges, little money

Xiao notes that different groups and areas face distinct obstacles, and “our strategies for each of them have to be a little different.”

While Salt Lake County has budgeted $240,000 for the effort — from translating and printing materials to producing some tightly targeted ads — “once you divide it up, $240,000 doesn’t really go that far,” she says.

The Legislature this year appropriated no money for the census, and chose to depend on efforts by the Census Bureau and volunteers. In contrast, California is spending $154 million. Utah legislative leaders recently acknowledged they should have set aside some money, and are now sweeping budget corners seeking to find some.

Meanwhile, Xiao said the county will try to be as creative as possible with what money it does have.

For example, she notes that Alta received a small amount to try to persuade its residents — including some who live nearly off the grid in hard-to-find places — to participate, and they have a novel idea. They are considering a beer and pizza party for the small town, with computers available to fill out forms online.

“They may require people to finish their census before they get the pizza," she said.