Montgomery County is taking unprecedented steps to encourage participation in the 2020 Census — a trend rippling through the rest of the state.
The Maryland Department of Planning recently awarded the county $581,700 to expand efforts to reach undercounted residents, part of a $5 million statewide funding package for 53 local jurisdictions and agencies.
This is the first time both Maryland and county governments have dedicated funding to census outreach, said Diane Vu, the county’s director of the Office of Community Partnerships. The efforts come amid lingering concerns over a proposed citizenship question the U.S. Commerce Department suggested in 2018.
Federal judges have since blocked the Trump administration from including the question on the 2020 Census. But experts worry that the protracted legal battle could have a chilling effect on immigrants and other minority groups.
The U.S. Census Bureau has also significantly reduced federal funding for outreach, Vu said, which left state and local governments to fill in the gap.
“[The Census Bureau] is saying it’s because they’re moving more of the work online, so they don’t need to allocate as many resources,” Vu said. “But we know our communities are living in fear. There’s so much confusion around the citizenship question, it’s going to require an unprecedented amount of outreach in a way we’ve never done before.”
To encourage greater investment in the county’s outreach efforts, the Office of Community Partnerships is establishing a Census Fund with grant money from the state. The program will be administered by the Community Foundation of Montgomery County and open to individual contributions, Vu said.
The county also hired a full-time census campaign manager to spearhead a marketing effort aimed at raising awareness and increasing participation in the count. Some of the strategies are as simple as distributing flyers or speaking at community festivals and church services, Vu said.
But the county also plans to hire part-time workers charged with reaching out to vulnerable residents, including seniors, the homeless, and the roughly 10 percent of households in Montgomery County without an internet subscription.
“Those residents are especially important to reach because the Census Bureau is really pushing to move everything to the internet,” Vu said. “Households won’t be receiving mailed questionnaires. They’ll be receiving postcards inviting them to respond to the census online.”
As counties grapple with concerns over low participation, officials are working to emphasize the importance of an accurate census count. The federal government uses the decennial survey to allocate billions of dollars in funding, from infrastructure services including roads and hospitals to social programs such as Medicare and reduced-cost school lunches.
For every person not counted, the county loses a little more than $18,000 in federal and state funding over the course of a decade, Vu said.
In 2010, Montgomery County had one of the highest response rates in the country, at 80%, which still left more than 200,000 residents who weren’t included in the census.
Over the next decade, the county estimates it lost more than $3 billion in funding, Vu said.
The state also awarded $100,000 to the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for tenant rights. The organization plans to specifically target participation among renters, one of the most undercounted communities in the United States.
“You see it especially with low-income and minority renters,” Executive Director Matt Losak said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Renters are often seen as second-class, non-participatory residents of the county, but encouraging them to participate in the census is a way to empower tenants and all residents to receive the resources we’re entitled to by a full count.”
To spread awareness of the upcoming survey, the nonprofit plans to launch an informational campaign with door-to-door canvassing and new materials that emphasize the privacy of census responses. The organization is also planning a series of community meetings, Losak said, and reaching out to 20 rental properties to encourage them to participate in the campaign.
Montgomery County has been mobilizing for the census since earlier this year, when County Executive Marc Elrich and Council President Nancy Navarro issued a joint proclamation establishing a committee for outreach and education. Gov. Larry Hogan established a statewide “Complete Count Committee” in February.