(NBC 12)

For Virginia to get all the federal money possible for a host of programs covering health, housing, transportation and schools, among other areas, every possible resident will need to be counted in the 2020 census.

It’s a hard task, given that the Census Bureau has been underfunded on the federal level for several years and President Donald Trump administration’s idea to include a citizenship question could have a chilling effect on immigrant communities’ responses. The suggestion has since been challenged and shot down by several federal judges.

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed setting aside $1.5 million of state money to launch an outreach effort in Virginia. The idea was cut from the General Assembly’s final budget and again spiked when lawmakers reconvened last week to consider Northam’s changes to the budget.

Northam created the Complete Count Commission in December through executive order to “improve collaboration between the commonwealth and the U.S. Census Bureau and encourage all stakeholders to actively prepare for the 2020 Census.”

Census numbers determine Virginia’s share of about $675 billion in federal dollars, according to Northam’s executive order. It also sets how many seats in Congress the state gets, helps the state draw legislative districts and determines how many votes Virginia gets in the electoral college.

An inaccurate count can affect federally funded programs like public housing, resources in schools for students who are learning English as a second language and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, among others.

“Even though the census itself is a federal government responsibility, there’s so much at stake for local and state government, there’s really a role for everybody,” said Margaret Nimmo Holland, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children and a commission member.

Northam’s order doesn’t say how many Virginians may have gone uncounted in the 2010 census. Kelly Thomasson, secretary of the commonwealth, said half a percent of Virginians (about 45,000 people) went uncounted in the 2010 census. She consulted the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service to determine that number.

The 40-member Complete Count Commission includes representatives from Asian community organizations, black organizations, groups that work with senior citizens, children advocacy groups, Native American representatives and military families — all groups of people that often go under-counted in the national census.

Children under five years old, for example, often go uncounted when they live between two parents’ home, with family members or are in foster care, Holland said. Adults may be confused about who is going to count the child or where the child should be counted. Many households also forget to count newborns, she said.

(Holland said adults should count a child wherever they spend the most time or wherever they will physically be on April 1, 2020. Newborns born between Jan. 1 and April 1, 2020 should be counted on 2020 census forms.)

Rural residents may be missed in 2020 since it will be the first year the census is conducted primarily online and some communities may not have reliable access to internet. Immigrant communities may be especially hesitant to participate this year because of Trump’s push to include a citizenship question.

Without state funding, the commission will focus on what it can do to educate and prepare people, community organizations and local governments.

“Candidly, the lack of funding is a barrier to being as effective as we could be, but that doesn’t meant we’re giving up,” said Jonathan Zur, president of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and member of the Complete Count Commission. “But in terms of outreach and awareness, funding allows us to do a number of things that a lack of funding does not.”

The money could have made it easier to launch educational campaigns, for example, one of the things Northam’s order said the commission could do.

So far, members of the commission have penned several op-eds in newspapers across the state explaining the importance of a complete census count. They also plan to involve church and school leaders as well as medical professionals, like pediatricians, in their efforts.

“There are some families in some communities that are going to be distrustful of a government survey so it’s especially important that we reach out and explain what the role of the census is and that it comes from a trusted source,” Holland said.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, was one of the most vocal supporters of state funding for census outreach. She spoke about the importance of counting every resident of Virginia several times on the House of Delegates floor and cited “non-return” rates of 2010 census surveys in Hampton Roads, which includes many of the state’s largest cities. 

Non-return rates track the number of people who don’t respond to the initial census survey mailed to them. The census follows up with those people in other ways to make sure they are included in the final count, so it shows how many people needed outreach for census participation, Price said on Twitter.

According to census data, Norfolk had a 29 percent non-return rate, meaning roughly 68,000 people there didn’t respond to the first survey mailed to them for the 2010 census. Newport News, where Price’s father presides as mayor, had a 26 percent non-return rate.

At the bottom of return rates was Highland County, where 47 percent of residents didn’t return a survey. Bland and King and Queen counties had the state’s highest return rates at 85 and 86 percent, respectively.

“The @uscensusbureau is WAY behind on staffing and prep for the upcoming census,” Price tweeted a few weeks before the General Assembly reconvened to consider Northam’s vetos and budget rewrites. “We have to look out for ourselves. VA can do that by funding outreach to make sure there is a complete count in our Commonwealth.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Contact her at [email protected]