With Funding and Representation at Stake, State and Local Officials Prepare for Federal Census of Connecticut

(Credit: Census Bureau)


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State officials have estimated that for each person who goes uncounted in the 2020 Census, Connecticut could lose about $2,900 of federal funding for each of the next ten years.

“This is for us to see how the demographics of our country are changing … we have to be prepared for the changes in our lives, and things certainly will change a lot over ten years,” said Elizabeth Porter, who chairs the Town of Groton’s Complete Count Committee in a phone interview on Thursday.

“We have to continue to fight to get our piece of the pie,” said Porter.

The United States Census Bureau is tasked with counting every person residing in the United States in 2020, as well as collecting basic information including the number of people living in each home, the relationship between residents, their age, sex, and race.

The United States Constitution requires that this count be completed every ten years. The federal government then uses this data for purposes such as apportioning federal aid state and local governments as well as for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 2020 Census will be the first when the majority of Americans are expected to respond online. Porter said that the first census mailers, which should arrive at addresses in mid-March, will invite residents to respond at Census.gov. Two more rounds of mailers would arrive in April and May for those who haven’t responded. Canvassers would begin to go door-to-door in the summer.

As part of this effort, the Census Bureau plans to hire about 22,000 temporary employees for full- and part-time jobs in Connecticut. About 11,000 of these jobs, which would pay $21 to $25 dollars per hour, were still unfilled in December. Application information can be found on the census website.

In October 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration pledged to spend $500,000 from state discretionary funds to support efforts to increase Connecticut’s census response rates. Philanthropic groups in the state, including the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, have pledged to match that number. 

At the local level, Connecticut municipalities and community groups have formed over 100 Complete Count Committees that will attempt to increase response rates from local populations.

The census collects essential information, said Carol Conklin, who chairs Old Saybrook’s Complete Count Committee, in a phone interview on Thursday. “Like where schools will go; big companies who want to move into a town will use census data; it’s used for federal and local funds that come to our state and get filtered out locally like food and medical programs for hospitals. It’s really critical survey data that gets used by many services and organizations.”

Porter said that local town committees use trusted community leaders like clergy, educators, business leaders, social workers, and elected officials to educate the public about the issue.

“We’re the trusted faces, the trusted voices. People know us,” explained Porter.

“These days people can be much more resistant and we want to show them that they don’t have to be afraid,” Porter said. “And that’s why these trusted voices are so important — to get out those people who are known in the community. So I’ll just say do it. It’s not going to take that long.”

Some fear the government collecting the information, Porter said, but she said that federal law prohibits the census from sharing any personally identifiable information with other government agencies or private individuals.

“We have to get the understanding out that we’re not looking for names,” Porter said. “We’re just looking for numbers.”

Undercounted Populations

In Connecticut, many of the hardest to count areas are in the state’s largest cities — Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport — based on response rates from the 2010 census.

In southeastern Connecticut, portions of Groton, New London, and Norwich have been identified as prone to undercounting, after only 73 percent or fewer of residents are estimated to have returned census forms in 2010.

Respondents are asked to identify a place of residence based on where they will sleep on April 1, 2020.  Towns like East Lyme, which hosts the York Correctional Institution for women, include inmates in the count of local residents. Sailors stationed in Groton identify the Navy base as their place of residence. Students living away from home during the school year are counted as residents of the school.

Children as a group, especially children under 5, have also been chronically underreported in the census, said Susan Radway, executive director of the Riverfront Children’s Center in Groton and a member of the Town of Groton’s Complete Count Committee.

“Children don’t count themselves,” Radway said in a Thursday phone interview. “Somebody has to count them, and what if the child is at this moment in the custody of another relative and not the actual relative. So does the parent count them or does the relative think the parents are counting them and so doesn’t count them?”

Radway said the Riverfront Children’s Center is working to raise public awareness, and by the early spring parents will be able to use tablets and computers at the children’s center to fill out census forms.

“I think the most important way to think about getting responses is to think about where families are located and thinking about how information gets to them and making sure it goes where they’re registered.,” Radway said, “The surest way to get it done is to get devices out to where the families are.”

Non-native English speakers also tend to have low response rates.

Conklin said that in Old Saybrook, her committee will encourage business leaders talk to their employees to explain the importance of the census, and to encourage trust in the process. Both Conklin and Porter emphasized that federal law forbids census employees from sharing any information that could identify respondents.

“Safe, safe, safe is going to be an ongoing message,” Conklin said. “It’s extremely secure information. [The Census Bureau is] their own entity, and it’s all coded for them. They have a completely isolated database.”

While urban areas typically have lower response rates to the census, said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, smaller towns also can face hurdles to obtaining an accurate count because residents are either seasonal, or live in relatively isolated rural areas.

Gara sits on the statewide Connecticut Complete Count Committee, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

“Participating in the census is very critical to our small towns because of the impact it will have on funding available for Connecticut from the federal government,” Gara said in a Tuesday interview. “So we are encouraging our towns to create census committees and ensure that they’re getting the word out about completing the census … there are challenges but it is important that we all participate.”