In an absence of federal investment, organizers across the region are working to improve the chances of an accurate count
By Mark Oprea
Daniel Ortiz has his sights set on attention, but not for himself. At the most recent Convención Hispana in Cleveland, Ortiz, the thirty-seven-year-old outreach director for Policy Matters Ohio, walked among thousands of attendees—the vast majority of them of Hispanic or Latinx-identified—at Max Hayes High School, speaking to residents about a burgeoning public concern: ensuring they’ll be counted accurately on the 2020 U.S. Census. “There are so many who just want to stay invisible,” Ortiz said in Max Hayes’ bustling lunch hall, in October. In an adjacent room, pop singer José Feliciano waited to take the stage in the gymnasium. “Our leaders need to know we’re here,” Ortiz added. “They won’t pay attention to us if we don’t vote. If we aren’t counted.”
For the past two years, a coalition of politicians, advocacy groups, youth activists, and state senators have expressed collective worry about a gross undercount on the 2020 U.S. Census. With the federal government administering historically low dollars for state-wide Census outreach (with wide delays, too), the financial burden has shifted to state and county entities instead. While some Democrat-led states, like California and Illinois, have unveiled substantial funding packages for hard-to-count populations, others, like Texas or Ohio, have notoriously come up short. After a $50 million census bill died in the Texas legislature, Democrat César Blanco pointed his finger at Republicans. “They’re concerned that if you have a more accurate count,” he told the New York Times, “it’ll put them at a disadvantage.”
While the Census Bureau’s definition of “hard-to-count” is vast (including everyone from Black communities to children under five), 2020 shines a particular focus on the country’s Hispanic and Latinx-identified groups. Since 2010, officials have anticipated that a sense of government distrust would lead many, especially the Mexican diaspora, to avoid Census enumerators altogether. Two Bureau “dress rehearsals” were set up for reassurance purposes, but later cut due to limited funds. In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office dubbed the census a “high risk” activity “in jeopardy.” Then, in July, the U.S. Supreme Court, at President Trump’s urging, toyed with the idea of adding a citizenship question for the first time since 1950. It was shot down, but its effect lingered. In February, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials reported that nearly half of all Hispanic/Latinx residents still thought they were to be asked about their citizenship status come April.
“We need to do our best to dispel those myths,” Ortiz said, sitting in his office, in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood, in January. Hung on the walls are a Puerto Rican flag and an illustrated portrait of Cesar Chavez. (“A personal hero of mine,” Ortiz said.) “And we need messengers,” he added. “We need people who can listen to them. To do that strictly on a volunteer basis is going to be necessary. And it’s going to be hard.”
Although Ohio’s Hispanic population—3.9 percent, according to the Bureau’s 2019 estimation—is relatively small compared to Illinois or Texas, the size disparity doesn’t exactly warrant an easier count. In Cleveland, where there are roughly forty-five thousand Hispanic/Latinx people, a deficiency in state dollars can lead to serious repercussions. Three hundred federal programs rely on Census data, so an undercount can signify fewer dollars appropriated for Medicaid, Section 8, or healthy food aid programs. Congressional districts can be rewritten in error. According to a study by George Washington University, a county loses $18,000 for every person not counted.
“We knew from the beginning we had to do this like a campaign,” says Jasmin Santana, councilwoman of Ward 14, which includes Clark-Fulton, Cleveland’s largest Hispanic neighborhood. Facing a predicted lack of participation—Santana estimates only twenty-two percent of her constituents reported in the 2010 Census—she, like Ortiz, began a self-funded operation last year to regain the public trust. She orchestrated a Ward 14 Casino Night fundraiser, roped in a team of seventeen volunteer ambassadors with a local CDC and the Democratic Party. She expanded her weekly newsletter. All without any federal help.
“It frustrates me, because I understand both sides,” she told me in February, recalling a recent outreach event. “I tell people, ‘You need to fill this out, because we need the funding to help you.’ But I always hear, ‘I don’t trust the government. And I’m not going in some database.’”
Across the region, in Chicago, it’s hard to miss the census messaging. “In 2020, be counted,” a newspaper advertisement on Clark St. reads. “Shape your future,” reads a blue-and-white billboard hovering over I-94. Walk inside City Hall, and you’re greeted by a colorful barrage of signs, postcards and stickers—“HAZTE CONTAR,” they read in big, bold lettering. “BE COUNTED.”
In stark contrast to activities in Ohio and other Republican-led states, the Illinois Census Advisory Panel allotted $29 million last October to aid in accurate counts. Starting in January—a bit late, according to organizations I spoke with—the City of Chicago began distributing portions of its $2.7 million allocation to eighty on-the-ground nonprofits already situated in hard-to-count populations. This is paired up with nearly $2 million from Cook County, home to Chicago’s (and the Midwest’s) highest concentration of Hispanic residents, centered in its Pilsen neighborhood. To put this into perspective, the dollar amount of census-themed grants funneled into Cook County is hundreds of thousands more than Ohio is allocating for the entire state.
“To me, that speaks volumes,” Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya said recently in her office in City Hall. Anaya, the County’s first Latina commissioner in twenty years, spotted warning signs attending stakeholder meetings with her predecessor Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in 2018. She knew her role at the forefront was crucial. “We were like, ‘We already know we’re not going to get the funding, or the outreach, from the federal government. So, how do we work locally to be able to do that ourselves?’”
Before she became a politician, Anaya was living as an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Born in Guadalajara in the late eighties, she relocated with her parents and three siblings to Chicago when she was six, living on the city’s South Side. When her parents divorced, Anaya and her family lost their housing, and lived for a year out of her mother’s car and various motels. It’s an experience that Anaya believes allows her to connect with Pilsen’s immigrant community, highlighted during her numerous monthly census coalition meetings she’s been orchestrating since July.
“Me having to give my background is like, ‘Look, I have cred, too,’” Anaya said. “It’s, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, because I came from there.’ To show people that I’m not just another politician looking to grab votes.” But she’s also keenly aware of the need to keep those votes, as a miscount of Cook County’s Hispanic population could, in theory, completely redraw Anaya’s 7th district.
In Pilsen, fifteen miles south of City Hall, one encounters a neighborhood of gradual change and cultural contradiction. Originally an enclave for immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic, the area has been a longtime refuge for Mexican immigrants, who have been displaced primarily due to expanding gentrification in the past five years. In 2016, the University of Chicago found that nearly ten thousand families fled to West Side suburbs, blaming steep rents and cultural deformity (a modest two-bedroom now costs about $1,200). These days, some Pilsen residents talk about a neighborhood humming with strange tension, one divided by Spanish proficiency and U.S. residency status.
On 21st Street, you’ll find the pink facade of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a non-profit geared to help Hispanic women recover after instances of domestic violence and sexual assault. This year, it’s also one of the eighty grantees of census funding, distributed by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, dollars that allowed MLEA to hire two full-time Census Coordinators (each Coordinator has three volunteers). The aim is of course straight-forward: work with Pilsen’s four other Census-focused nonprofits, go door-to-door—or wherever a crowd may be—to garner residents’ trust.
Of course, no dollar amount can guarantee that. “There were ICE raids here two years ago,” Eric Dussthua, a bartender in Pilsen, recalled. “And I remember thinking, ‘I would definitely be scared, especially if I didn’t have a green card.’”
Anel Sancen, a Census Coordinator for MLEA, knows this firsthand. In January, as MLEA’s outreach kicked into high gear, I went with Sancen on a drive around Pilsen and the nearby Little Village neighborhood. We took off down 18th St.—residents called Pilsen “El Dieciocho” back in the day—and drove past blocks and blocks of torterias, supermarkets, Mexican-themed murals, vintage fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops. As Sancen and I discuss Pilsen’s evolution, she relates a recent story. At a January MLEA outreach event, Sancen opened by asking the crowd if they could explain the word census. She received mostly silence. “It was shocking,” Sancen told me. “I asked them, ‘How many of you participated in the 2010 Census?’ It was surprising how bad it was. Very bad. You know, it was just mixed emotions.”
On a recent Wednesday evening in Cleveland—nightfall, in the basement of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center on Archwood Avenue—Daniel Ortiz seemed anxious. He had organized an event called “Know Your Rights, Financial Literacy Edition,” but he was also hoping to improve attendees’ census knowledge. With the help of Maria Sosa, a Spanish-Language Specialist with the Census Bureau, Ortiz had lugged Census 2020-themed posters, buttons, infographics, water bottles, and stickers—the usual merch—plus a five-minute Powerpoint presentation and “Census Made Simple” PSA. A local eatery catered empanadas.
About thirty-five people showed up to the event. Six speakers shared personal financial advice; Sosa showed the PSA. Ortiz capped the night on a serious note: an inaccurate census count isn’t just a miss-out on funding opportunities, but it’s the very antithesis of democracy. “When we say that we want to make sure our community is counted,” he said to attendees, “we’re doing it for a reason.”
While Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Census Complete Count Commission has been off the ground since September, all twenty-seven of its representatives are working solely in a volunteer capacity (none responded to calls for comment). As of this writing, no census-specific funds have been appropriated from the state budget. A recent Budget Correction Bill did allocate $500,000 to the Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs—though not specifically for the Census—yet activists like Ortiz are still advocating for more. “I think that not committing resources to help bolster the count—it just makes me question the logic,” Ortiz said. “What’s in the state’s interest, and what’s in every state’s interest, is to make sure that we have an accurate and complete count.”
Later this year, after Census enumerators vacate the hard-to-count areas of America, after the sun sets on Census Day, after all the mailers have been returned, no one knows for sure what will be the outcome. Both the Urban Institute and the U.S. Census Bureau predict at least a one percent undercount nationwide, a plausibility that includes up to 2.2 million Hispanic/Latinx-identified residents and a four percent miscount in Ohio. Volunteering and canvassing can help close the gap, though experts aren’t sure they can entirely make up for the lack of federal investment. At this point, “It appears that an undercount in the 2020 Census is inevitable,” the Urban Institute concluded in its report. “The only question is how much.” ■
Mark Oprea is a journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, the Cleveland Magazine and Narratively, and reported from Mexico City in 2018. He’s also a 2020 Kiplinger Fellow at Ohio University.
Cover image of Census 2020 placards on display at Chicago’s City Hall, on January 23, 2020. Photo by Mark Oprea.
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