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Western Pa. nonprofits work to reach 'hard-to-count' people ahead of 2020 U.S. Census

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, 8:36 p.m.
The paperwork used by census takers in 2000.
The paperwork used by census takers in 2000.

The deadline for Americans to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census is 16 months out, but efforts already are under way to ensure Western Pennsylvanians don’t miss it.

The once-a-decade population count will impact policymaking, regional planning and how much public money flows into local communities for years.

Inaccurate and under-counted figures could jeopardize state and federal funding for everything from preschool and veterans programs to transportation investments and the availability of federal disaster aid.

That’s why public officials, human services providers and community advocates already have begun work to ensure census data reflects reality as closely as possible.

“This is a critical community issue that we need to address,” Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, said Thursday as a panelist discussing participation in the 2020 U.S. Census. He spoke during the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership’s annual meeting at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

More than 100 nonprofit, government and community representatives attended the meeting, which centered on the theme, “Everyone Counts: Creating a Culture of Civic Engagement, Beginning with Census 2020.”

The event’s speakers focused on the region’s so-called “hard-to-count” populations — such as the elderly, people of color, immigrants, children under 4, domestic violence victims, residents in rural areas and people living in poverty.

“When you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to pay your next bill, how you’re going to get to work, what your kids are going to eat for dinner, trying to understand why the census is important and ‘why am I taking the time out of my day to be counted’ is a tough concept,” Koch said. “Although the percentage of people of color living in Westmoreland County is relatively low, it is the fastest-growing population in Westmoreland County — people of color and immigrants — so we need to be thinking about that as we think about the census moving forward.

“And we know in some of our rural communities, folks just don’t want the government in their business.”

Getting the count right

The region could lose out on an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 over the coming decade for each person left uncounted, according to Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, who is co-chairing Allegheny County’s newly formed Complete Count Committee. It’s the first such committee formed in the state to prepare for and get the word out about the 2020 Census.

The committee and dozens of nonprofit leaders are working on ways to dispel misinformation about the census and quell fears people may have about participating in it.

“The Pittsburgh region, frankly, is doing very well and is a little bit ahead of the curve,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the meeting’s keynote speaker. “The fact that they’re very engaged at the local level 16 months out is very promising.”

Fear and mistrust is a common reason people are reluctant to respond to the census, said panel moderator Betty Cruz, founder of the Change Agency. Cruz is co-chair of the 26-member Allegheny County Complete Count Committee along with Behr and Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

“Many in our community are fearful about being counted and what that will mean, whether we’re talking about our Muslim neighbors, post-9/11 veterans, older adults, immigrants and refugees or LGBTQIA community members who’ve often felt underrepresented or even, at worst, demonized,” Cruz said.

RELATED: Pittsburgh joins lawsuit challenging citizenship question on 2020 census

Undocumented immigrants may fear being tracked could lead to deportation.

Domestic violence victims are afraid of being found.

Some elderly people have a fear of using computers, and this year’s census marks the first time that responses will be accepted online.

The census also may be filled out on paper or by telephone. After three mailer attempts without a response, the Census Bureau will send workers knocking on doors.

“What I do worry about is (the Census Bureau) may be overestimating how many people will go online” to respond, Yang said.

The Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh, based in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, has started up a tablet cafe to help teach seniors how to use technology, said Rabbi Ron Symons, the organization’s senior director of Jewish Life.

The JCC further aims to increase cooperation with groups and leaders spanning more religions and cultures, such as the region’s Asian population, which represents about 20 percent of the population in Squirrel Hill.

“Our interfaith network needs to be even broader so that people who feel like they are on the margins can be brought in and embraced,” said Symons, “and so that we can figure out who are the right people to go knocking on doors or to help with the computer in order to ensure that every person does get counted.”

In Westmoreland County, which has a significant rural population and many small municipalities, census outreach efforts should involve existing institutions like libraries, churches, schools and some 80 volunteer fire departments, Koch said.

“What we’ve found is our youth are the best form of advocacy to disseminate information to their parents,” said panelist Joyce Ellis, executive director of LeMoyne Community Center in Washington, Pa., which had recent success in getting more parents to vote after holding mock voting events.

In Washington County, challenges include reaching out to transient populations, renters and people living in group homes and halfway houses that may not feel like residents there — “also people who tend to not vote, because they’re floating around,” Ellis said.

Census Day is April 1 with follow-ups to begin in May to households that do not respond.

In addition to the potential state and federal dollars at stake, “This is about people and community and humanity,” Symons said. “It’s not just about counting properly, it’s actually getting to know our neighbors and understanding who they are.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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