Commentary: A flawed Census could hurt Utah’s rural areas and marginalized communities

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) JoAnn Black reacts to opposition to redistricting proposals during a hearing in Monticello, Utah, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. The redistricting proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts as the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation.

Stories of people disappearing from their homes and neighborhoods sound like a sci-fi horror movie or a banner headline on a grocery store tabloid. But a real threat to knowing just how many Utahns live in our state seriously looms on the horizon.

The 2020 Census is just around the corner, and we are not ready. Preparations for the every-10-years count of our national population are underfunded and all of this could hurt Utah’s communities, especially those in rural areas. Marginalized communities, fearful of government inquiries could also be overlooked in our state count. Why is the census a big deal? Every 10 years our Constitution requires a non-biased, non-political count of how and where our population has grown. What’s new for 2020 is that it aims to be the largest, most digitally-advanced census effort ever. Our census not only counts populations, it also sets up representation decisions for federal, state and local governments.

Federal funding – nearly $600 billion each year - for programs like Medicare, the National School Lunch Program, highways, housing assistance, Medicaid, and Head Start are all guided by census data.

Accurate data will be needed by Utah businesses for identifying skilled labor pools and wise investment choices. And our local nonprofits will want it for effectively serving communities in need. We know that our state’s population and demographics are changing rapidly, and good data is good for business, and good for governing. Unfortunately, Congress has underfunded the U.S. Commerce Department’s preparations for the 2020 Census. Congress demanded the Bureau stick within the $13 billion cost of the 2010 Census, even as testing and ramping up its new digital tools for operations and systems to improve the census are proving more expensive to implement. Going online should save money by reducing wasted trips by enumerators – the canvassers who collect and verify people’s addresses and ages – but this effort needs to be tested, especially in rural areas to ensure accuracy.

Unfortunately, the Bureau felt pressured to cut costs, and canceled two of three planned “dress rehearsals” for this year. These canceled tryouts in Washington state and West Virginia were supposed to help the census process evaluate its performance in hard-to-reach rural areas with unreliable internet service and on Indian reservations without standard addresses.

Utah’s own rural counties and townships with significant needs for support could lose out – not just on being counted accurately – but also the millions of dollars of program funding and resources that will be available in coming years, if we don’t get this right. Check out http://www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us to see which Utah counties are the most likely to be undercounted.

Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies have also created a climate of fear among Utah’s ethnic and immigrant communities who may avoid answering the census altogether. The census is intended to count all people – regardless of citizenship.

So, what needs to happen? Congress and the Trump Administration need to take this matter seriously and properly fund our 2020 Census while we still have time. 2018 will be a critical year for planning and preparing. Utah’s congressional delegation should sign onto H.R. 4013, the 2020 American Census Investment Act of 2018 – which is being sponsored by other members of Congress who recognize this huge problem that can still be averted.

Local leaders must also ensure that addresses and other important data sets are as accurate as they can be. This information will be used by the U.S Census Bureau to implement the digital count of individuals in our towns, cities and unincorporated areas. The very real concern exists that many will still be missed. Consider those who live in isolated areas out of digital contact, as well as some persons with disabilities and the aged. We must provide the human and financial resources to do this right. New and improved methods and technologies take time — and money — to rigorously test, and to fix problems when they come up. We only get to do this every 10 years. Utah literally cannot afford to undercount our residents.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, represents the 24th District in the Utah House. Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, represents the 26th District in the Utah Senate.