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New nonprofit seeks to boost census participation

Thursday, January 23, 2020 by Jack Craver

With six weeks until the 2020 census kicks off, the local effort to boost participation hopes to raise additional money for outreach efforts.

Census Program Manager John Lawler, who is overseeing the Austin/Travis County Complete Count Committee, which both the city and county chipped in $200,000 to fund, told the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday that he hopes to raise an additional $300,000 in the coming weeks. Potential sources of money include state grants and local nonprofits and businesses.

The money is being raised by a new nonprofit, the Austin-Travis County Collaborative.

“This is a nonpartisan effort,” said County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who helped set up the nonprofit with the League of Women Voters. “These funds are not political. These funds can only be used to facilitate the most accurate count possible. The nonprofit will remain in existence so we don’t have to re-create the wheel in 10 years.”

The foundation of the outreach effort, said Lawler, are numerous “Complete Count Committees” aimed at different communities.

The first one to organize was the Asian American CCC, which has strategized on how to maximize participation among the region’s rapidly growing Asian population. Lawler said he recently printed out 5,000 flyers in Vietnamese to distribute at a Vietnamese New Year festival in North Austin.

Other CCCs include ones focused on African Americans, Latinos, college students, and the homeless population. Lawler said that the annual Point in Time Count, where volunteers will span across the city in the early morning hours this Saturday to count homeless people, will help inform the complete count committee’s efforts to make sure that as much of the area’s unhoused population is counted in the census.

The committee and the CCCs will not be the ones distributing the actual census forms. They just want to let people know to do so when they receive the form in the mail or get a visit from a Census worker.

In every case, said Lawler, the committee is relying on each CCC to figure out how to best engage their communities, whether that’s through civic organizations, faith communities, neighborhood associations or setting up tables at grocery stores.

Travis County had an estimated participation of 73 percent in the 2010 census. Because the federal government relies on census figures to determine funding for federal grants and programs, local governments have a keen interest in increasing participation. Julie Wheeler, interim head of the county Intergovernmental Relations Office, said that the county loses an estimated $1,500 a year for each resident who doesn’t participate.

One of the greatest challenges the committee anticipates is engaging with immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. Although the Trump administration was unsuccessful in its push to get a citizenship question on the census, many immigrants will naturally be reluctant to provide personal information to the government.

Lawler applauded the efforts of Commissioner Margaret Gómez and Constable George Morales, who he said had “stepped up big-time” to try to raise awareness about the census in Southeast Travis County, “which has some of the hardest-to-count population.”

The goal, said Lawler, is to have “folks from the community,” who residents trust and who speak their language, to help people understand that they have nothing to fear in participating in the census.

As for the $300,000 the committee hopes to raise, Lawler said he is waiting on feedback from the CCCs to get a sense of the resources they need. Then, he said, the nonprofit can approach potential donors with a clearly defined ask.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau made available through a Creative Commons license.

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