CLEVELAND — The 2020 U.S. Census count will ripple through Northeast Ohio communities for a decade, the blueprint for dividing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for schools, hospitals, roads and senior services and more.
It dictates how many people represent communities in Congress and on city councils in some places such as Cleveland. The information collected even guides whether Starbucks or Target open stores in a community.
Done every 10 years, the current census count ends Sept. 30th.
As of today, 66 percent of Cuyahoga County households have responded, with surrounding counties doing slightly better.
In Cleveland, the figure is just 50 percent, below the 2010 Census-response rate of 56 percent. In East Cleveland, the rate is even worse.
Every person counted generates $1,800 in federal money that returns home, one study shows.
That’s why county officials and others have been targeting hard-to-reach households.
People don’t respond for many reasons, said Erika Anthony of Cleveland VOTES, a nonprofit leading the Census count in neighborhoods.
“The mistrust of government, especially for black and brown people is not something new or unique in 2020,” she said.
Other reasons included unstable living arrangements and a lack of access to the internet at a time when the Census Bureau is putting more resources behind encouraging people to respond online.
Cuyahoga County and other groups began making plans in 2019 to boost response rate through organized peer-to-peer contact and door-knocking. But the pandemic crushed those efforts.
“But this year because we can’t be in physical proximity to them in the same way this really has compromised our ability to get what the census calls the hard-count population,” Anthony said.
In-person canvassing started mid-August, when census workers began knocking on doors to conduct interviews in person. Census workers have been wearing personal protective equipment and been carrying computer tablets this year to help people respond online.
Cuyahoga County partnered with dozens of organizations, including libraries to help residents respond online or seek help in filling out the census survey. The county is also staging events at grocery stores and foodbanks to reach large volumes of people.
Even so, Cuyahoga County’s census point person, Simeon Best, said outreach workers have had trouble getting face-to-face in some places.
“We are hearing a lot of feedback from enumerators that have been hired that it is not easy getting to certain apartment buildings and certain houses,” he said. “They just don’t’ feel comfortable.”
Anthony said people will be most likely to respond after hearing from their network of family and friends about the importance of being counted.
“We have to understand that at the end of the day, as individuals we have different folks we trust and believe in to get information,” she said.
Anthony said her organization is building a playbook on its efforts this year that she said could be used for reaching people in the next census in 2030. It will be archived by the Cleveland Public Library.
Given the stakes, she said, it’s never too early to plan.