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As Census Count Winds Down, Advocates Work To Reach Wichita's Hard-To-Count Communities

Nadya Faulx
Monique Garcia, left, and Ana Lopez outside Juarez Bakery, where they shared information on the 2020 census.

The 2020 census count is set to end Sept. 30, a month earlier than originally planned. That’s left census workers and advocates hurrying to get as many households to respond as possible – especially in communities that have historically been undercounted.

Kansas is near the top of all states in terms of this year’s census – more than 97 percent of households have been counted. More than two-thirds of all households chose to self-respond, either by mail, phone or online.

That’s the good news.

Zoom in a little, though, and it’s a different picture. In Wichita, the response rates in some neighborhoods haven’t cracked 50 percent, and time is running out to change that.

That’s why the city and groups like the Complete Count Committee are specifically targeting areas with low response rates – areas like the 67204 ZIP code in north Wichita.

"Everything around that ZIP code is just a very multicultural community. It's very rich. There's Hispanics, there's Native Americans, there's Asians. So it's just a big, big multicultural area," said Ana Lopez, a community service representative with the City of Wichita's District 6.

Lopez works out of the Evergreen Neighborhood Resource Center, a multi-facility campus on 25th and Arkansas with a public library, TOPS Early Learning Center and recreation center. Nearby is a GraceMed Health Clinic and Cloud Elementary; blocks away are Pleasant Valley elementary and middle schools and North High — all of which receive funding based on the census.

"These are all different entities that could severely suffer if people don't respond to the census," Lopez said. "Why? Because the census, you know, it helps with education, with medical resources, with other resources that people sometimes don't understand that that's what the funds are going towards."

The federally mandated count of everyone living in the U.S. impacts everything from how many congressional representatives and electoral college votes a state has, to how much a community receives in funding for roads, schools, and social programs.

Being undercounted means communities can be underfunded, and underserved. For every household that doesn’t respond, Wichita loses an estimated $54,000 in funding over the next decade.

Total response rates in the area surrounding Evergreen ranged between 52% and 62% as of Sept. 13.

Lopez says she worries the census won't reflect Wichita's growing Hispanic population.

"Those census tracts are highly populated by the Hispanic and Latino community," she said. "And that is one of the communities that is likely to be very low in their response rate."

Barriers to an accurate count

Lopez and other census partners are getting creative to reach so-called "hard-to-count" areas.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Ana Lopez talks to a visitor.

On one hot Saturday afternoon in August, census workers and volunteers are hanging out in the parking lot outside Juarez Bakery near 11th and Waco.

A plate of pan dulce sits on a table surrounded by free books and face masks — a way to "incentivize people," said Monique Garcia, director of community relations with the Kansas Health Foundation.

KHF is partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau and local organizations to get the word out about the importance of the census. Garcia and others are at Juarez Bakery to catch people on their way in and ask whether they’ve filled out their census. If they haven’t, there’s a worker on site who can help them using a secure i-Pad.

"We're ready to get people to fill it out right then and there, because we don't know when they leave, if they're going to be able to call or do it online. So we're like, 'let's make it easy. You know, 10 questions, 10 minutes, next 10 years,'" Garcia said. "People get busy, you know, you say, 'Oh, I'm going to do it.'

"And then people get sidetracked. It's easy to do."

Because of the pandemic, the end of the census count was pushed from July to October; in August, that deadline was moved up so Sept. 30. The decision is currently being challenged in court.

"For that to be crunched back ... that definitely affects a lot of the hard to count communities, the low income communities who, you know, these folks are trying to stay alive," Garcia said. "They're trying to work and put food on the table and have their utilities paid on time.

"The census questionnaire is likely, understandably, probably low on their list."

The shortened timeline, Garcia said, "gives us less time to engage with these folks in the middle of a pandemic where it makes it harder for us to meet in person or connect in person."

To reach people across the state virtually, KHF and other partners have been hosting online census bingos, dubbed "censoteria."

"What we've been doing is to mix fun in terms of census awareness and information," Garcia sai. "The game card that we call out is a census factoid. So we'll say like, 'OK, highways, do you guys like driving through potholes?' And people will say no. And we're like, 'OK, then fill out your census.'"

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
A sign urging residents to respond to the census is posted near 21st and Arkansas in north Wichita.

'Todos cuentan'

Not only has the pandemic complicated efforts to get an accurate count, but a proposed citizenship question on the census has created confusion and fear among residents who are undocumented or live in a mixed-status household.

Janet Johnson, co-chair of the Wichita-Sedgwick County “Complete Count” Committee, stresses that the 2020 census does not ask about a person’s citizenship status.

"Participants don't need to be worried about that. Law enforcement does not have access to the information and won't have access for 72 years. So there's really no need to be afraid. There's nothing to be fearful of," she said. "We really encourage our families, even those that might be undocumented, to go ahead and participate because it benefits their community."

The Trump administration has also announced plans to exclude "illegal aliens" from being represented in congressional apportionment, a proposal that's also facing legal challenges.

"We’ve been using the two words in Spanish, todos cuentan, which means everybody counts," Garcia said. "Unlike voting, where a person has to be a U.S. citizen to vote, you do not need to be a U.S. citizen to complete your census. We just want to inform folks and remove any kind of barriers so they they're able to fill out the census and remove fear.

"Because there's a lot of fear. … They're still fearful that perhaps ICE can come and know where they live and come and deport them. And we say, no, it's confidential. It's protected by law."

And despite even the best efforts, that lingering fear could once again mean entire communities are underrepresented for the next 10 years.

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.