Colorado Relies On Accurate Census Counts. Some Groups Are Unsure They’ll Get One In 2020
Tax money goes to Colorado’s schools, roads, food assistance programs, libraries, medicaid, disaster programs like coronavirus relief funding and more. The amount of federal money those things get in Colorado is determined by census data. There’s only one full count every decade, so the impacts of an inaccurate count will be felt for a long time.
The count also affects political representation at state and federal levels. Colorado is currently on track to get an extra representative in Congress out of this count due to increasing population. The state’s citizen redistricting commission will need census population data to draw Colorado’s political boundaries.
Even ignoring all of the funding allocations, an accurate count is extremely important to local communities.
“It's not something that you'll just see overnight, but it will affect the bottom line for the next 10 years.”
“It also helps with understanding growth and development and the economic component to ensure that those communities are able to do the things that their communities actually would want or speak to in that particular population,” said Natriece Bryant, deputy executive director of Colorado's Department of Local Affairs.
For example, a city or town government needs to know how much of its population is at retirement age so they can provide appropriate services, she said. The count also determines what kind of grant funding communities can get for ambulances and other community needs.
“It's not something that you'll just see overnight, but it will affect the bottom line for the next 10 years,” said Alexis Kimborough, Grand County communications coordinator and complete count committee chair. “And so when you think about impacts like that on a county as rural as ours it really can affect a lot of essential services that we provide.”
“As an organization, Summit County government uses census data all the time through so many different aspects of our operations,” said Julie Sutor, director of communications for Summit County. “We rely on that data to do the work because it helps us understand our community and we're here to serve our community.”
It’s not just public officials who need these numbers — businesses rely on them to make important decisions as well.
“Businesses, also developers, look at information to see, do I go to Denver or do I go to Colorado Springs or do I go to Sawatch to develop and build my organization so that I can really grow the way that I want to?” said Bryant. “But it's also important for small businesses, not just those larger developers. It's important for small businesses to understand the sustainability plans that they need to put in place. And it helps them understand what types of businesses will work well in communities that they choose to go to.”
Austin McCauley is the owner of McCauley's Moustache Café in a northeastern Colorado city called Sterling. He said he needed the city’s population size to get a loan to start his business.
Nonprofits need these numbers too. The grants they can apply for are limited by population or demographic information, explained Jeff Schiel, fundraising manager for the Family Resource Center in Sterling, in March. Almost all of the Center’s programs are grant funded, he said.
“A good count of the population keeps us going and keeps us progressing. The more that we can do, the more programs we can offer, the better the community’s going to be.”
“A good count of the population keeps us going and keeps us progressing,” Schiel said. “The more that we can do, the more programs we can offer, the better the community’s going to be.”
If certain demographics — like kids or people of color — are under-counted (as they have been in previous decades), local nonprofits may not even know that there is a portion of their community that needs services, he added.
Researchers also need accurate numbers to track and call attention to public health trends like opioid and suicide deaths.
“You can find the deaths from the vital statistics data, but you need a good denominator,” said Rocky Mountain Research Data Center director Jani Little, referring to the statistics used in suicide or opioid death research. “You need to have an accurate count of the people at risk in that category to get an accurate rate; to really get an accurate idea of whether or not there is a trend emerging or not, or to be able to compare us in Colorado in certain counties to other counties or other States. So the population census comes into play there.”
The RMRDC is one of 32 Federal Statistical System Research Data Centers in the nation. The center exists so a handful of approved researchers are given access to extremely detailed Census data in a secure environment that the public can’t access for privacy reasons. It doesn’t include information about individual’s identities like names, but researchers can access data down to the street level which can be revealing even without names attached, Little said.
Researchers don’t use this decennial count as much as they use the many other surveys that the Census Bureau conducts in the years between each big count, she said. These surveys can provide rates of people with a disability or who are in poverty, for example. Though, all of those surveys are just estimates based on population samples and need the decennial Census as a base or “sampling frame.”
“If that sampling frame is not accurate or it under represents certain kinds of people, say vulnerable populations or whatnot,” Little said. “Then all of the national surveys that are based on that sampling frame, which is most all national surveys that the federal government conducts, they're going to be biased and not representative of the national population.”
The census deadline shifts, again
The original count deadline was July 31, but when the pandemic blew up the Census Bureau’s plans for ground operations, they extended the deadline to Oct. 31. Then they tightened it to Sept. 30 just as census takers were finally beginning to go door-to-door last month.
That deadline is now in limbo. On Saturday, a California district court judge issued a temporary restraining order keeping the Census Bureau from winding down its operations. The order is part of a lawsuit filed by several national organizations, counties and cities against the Census Bureau and Department of Commerce to prevent them from ending the count this month. The order is in place until the court can hear arguments about the whole issue on Sept. 17.
How Colorado’s count is progressing
The total response rate for Colorado is more than 88%. That includes households that responded on their own (by phone, mail or online) and households that are counted by census takers, people who go door-to-door to homes that haven’t filled it out yet or need to be double checked.
For the first few months of the census, people could only self-respond because ground operations were canceled due to the pandemic. Those operations resumed in mid-August, when the Colorado self-response rate hovered around 60%. They’ve led to a 20-point increase.
Response rate does not directly correspond to people who are counted and definitely not counted correctly, however. The response rate is representative of housing units that the Bureau has gotten responses from in the state, not people.
So, for example, if a city has 100 housing units and 60 of those homes self-respond, the self response rate would be 60%, regardless of how many people live in each home. If census takers visit the rest of the homes and find that 10 of those homes are vacant, those vacant homes still contribute to the response rate. Even if this 100-home city gets a full response rate, there is still room for error (like people being counted more than once), which is why the Bureau conducts data review operations to double check its work. The response rate also doesn’t include group quarters and transitory locations.
Fears about accuracy
Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s state demographer, is worried that things will be rushed if the census ends on Sept. 30. And she’s not alone.
“I think a lot of people working in the field thought that they were going to have until the end of October, and for them to lose four weeks I think is very discouraging for them,” she said. “I think just even in the general public. When you're looking at and talking with people, they're saying, ‘All right, we're putting a billions of dollars into this effort yet we're not going to let them finish.’ And so I think there's (discouragement) there.”
The Census Bureau’s ground operations in much of the state are more than 70% complete, but Southern Colorado, which has most of Colorado’s low-self response rate counties, is just about halfway done.
"We're working on trying to improve our own local data. Because we're not sure how reliable the census data is going to be,” Garner said.
While improved local data may help with Colorado’s understanding of its population, apportionment and federal dollars are only directed by the census.
“I think there's concerns across the board of what's going on,” she said. “I mean, we're working our hardest where we've got some great local participants, folks that are like community organizations that are working their hardest, but it seems like every time we work really hard, you know, the Census Bureau does something to make it even more challenging and so we're trying to keep that morale up and really explain to people how important these counts are and how important they are to this count that they matter."
Natriece Bryant, deputy executive director at the Department of Local Affairs, doesn’t share those concerns. Colorado has gone harder at this count than any before, she said.
“I think from our state standpoint, we've done as much as we possibly can to ensure that our data is safe and secure, but also accurate,” she said. “But we, I can tell you, we did have to do more work than we would have anticipated specifically because we were in a pandemic and it's something that we're not used to doing.”
The shortened deadline is just part of the equation. Nationally, concerns about the census’ accuracy also stem from COVID-19’s impact on outreach and operations, staffing issues, misinformation, untested technology, data review operations being cut short, as NPR has reported, and Trump administration efforts to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment count.
But advocates believe more time would lead to more accurate counts, particularly among populations that have been historically underrepresented in previous counts like renters, minorities and young children. Plus, it may also allow some other issues to be resolved, like the multi-state lawsuit Colorado is a part of to challenge the White House’s new undocumented immigrant rules.
The Bureau expects to have an accurate count in Colorado, said spokesperson Laurie Cipriano.
“We've had to make adjustments to meet our constitutional obligation, to deliver apportionment data to the president by December 31st,” she said. “And between now and the end of the year, we're working to make sure that we do that. So we have new programs in place that we've set up so that we can make sure that this count is accurate.”
Cipriano was interviewed before the court order to halt the Bureau’s wind down was put in place. But she emphasized that the counting deadline isn’t the only one that matters — like the second, constitutionally-mandated Dec. 31 deadline to deliver numbers to the President’s desk, which will be used to determine how representation is divided up.
“Yes, there is less time for people to respond on their own, but it gives us more time to do quality checks and make sure that we go back and make sure that people were not under-counted, but also that people weren't over counted, ” Cipriano said.
But some of those data review operations are being cut short even with the September deadline. In previous counts, the Bureau started these operations sooner because the counting normally ends in July. An internal census document leaked to Congress pointed to a “risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data” due to the compressed timeline.
Worries in Summit and Grand County
Summit and Grand County both have self-response rates (which only includes homes that responded without a census taker) of less than 30%. This puts them at the bottom for county self-response rates in the northern half of the state.
The Bureau does not publicly provide total response rates (which also includes responses collected by census takers) for individual counties. However, the Census Bureau calculated and provided KUNC with total response rate estimates for these counties. As of Sept. 3, ground operations have led Summit County’s response rate to more than double to 58% and Grand County’s response rate to nearly triple to 79%.
“We are no nowhere close to mission accomplished and the field operations are essential to ensure that we're getting a complete count in our community.”
While both counties' communications officers said they are happy to see the increase, they’re still worried.
“It makes absolutely no sense to shorten the field operations,” said Summit County communications director Julie Sutor. “We are no nowhere close to mission accomplished and the field operations are essential to ensure that we're getting a complete count in our community.”
Both counties have a lot of second homes and a lot of lodging for seasonal workers at their ski resorts, which makes the count harder.
Second homeowners are supposed to fill out the census for their non-primary property too, but should say they have zero tenants. Doing so may reduce the number of homes census takers have to spend time visiting.
And seasonal workers should only fill out the census for where they actually were on April 1, not where they were supposed to be if the pandemic had not occurred and shut down all the resorts (unless they would have been there on an immigrant visa).
Most of Summit County’s seasonal workers left before April 1, Sutor said, as the ski resorts were shut down in March after the county had the first recorded COVID-19 case in Colorado. The seasonal workers spend a lot of time in Summit and likely use its services and resources. The fact that many of those workers won’t be included in the count this time is concerning, she said.
Unlike Sutor, Grand County communications coordinator Alexis Kimbrough doesn’t think more time would have made a difference.
“The challenges that we face have been there all along, regardless of the amount of time that we've had to respond.”
“The challenges that we face have been there all along,” she said. “Regardless of the amount of time that we've had to respond.”
Both applaud all the hard work being done by local census workers to enumerate their counties. But they worry that work won’t be enough. The Bureau has identified Summit County as one of the areas of ”greatest need” for more census workers. The Census Bureau’s Laurie Cipriano says the agency is doing “a lot” to make sure everyone is counted in these communities, like offering overtime pay and incentives to it’s part-time Census takers to ensure more homes get visited.
Responding to the census
There’s still time to fill out the census by phone, mail or online. It takes about 10 minutes, is available in multiple languages and is totally confidential. While doing so may lighten the load, census takers sometimes also visit units that have already responded to double check the response.
Workers going door-to-door are sometimes mistreated by people who get angry at them, said Cipriano.
“It'd be nice if people were just nice and polite to the census worker who are just trying to do their job and just trying to make sure that everyone is represented in our country and in our state,” she said.
And for those that are concerned about people impersonating census workers, she emphasized that all workers will have a valid government ID with their photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and expiration date. They’ll also be observing the Centers for Disease Control’s protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
KUNC's Maxine Speier contributed reporting to this story.