Renton readies for the Census

City leaders work to count everyone, help ease information fears

Benita Horn, equity and inclusion consultant for Renton, realized something needed to change.

Looking over the data from the 2010 U.S. Census regarding hard to count communities with low turnout, she saw parts of Renton were included.

About two months ago, the city started to work on its plan for the census, which starts March 2020. Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar said there’s a heightened urgency for 2020 compared to previous years as the census unleashes big changes in its process. The census not only gives an outline of who lives in Renton, but the number of people counted determines the federal dollars funneled into the city and the amount of congressional seats Washington state is afforded.

Since the 2010 census, demographics have had a significant change, nationally and in Renton.

“We’ve been proudly proclaiming the fact,” Shridhar said.

As Renton has monitored and heralded being a minority-majority city, news the city had a very low census turnout in 2010 caused staff concern, given most of Renton fits in the pattern of census “hard to count” communities.

In 2010, Renton was a part of South King County that had the lowest response rates, especially in the Talbot Hill and Benson Hill areas. Those areas were part of a cluster including Tukwila and Kent, which saw some of the lowest response rates in the county.

That data and updated demographics for Renton have created a prediction for Renton to have a low response rate in 2020.

Next year people will be able to fill out the census online or through traditional methods of over the phone and on the paper survey. This could create a digital divide as older residents in Renton with poor digital literacy may turn away from the form or worry their form has more security risks.

For 2020, the census will be in four different languages online and 12 languages in print form, less languages than offered in 2010. This concerns Shridhar and Benita, who know that the Renton School District contains over 80 languages spoken in classrooms, and that some community members struggle with literacy in their first language.

Two of the common languages spoken in Renton, Somalian and Ukrainian, aren’t translated in the forms nor are there local census staff who speak it.

“It’s inaccessible,” Horn said.

A national discussion hits home for Renton

Shridhar also mentioned the citizenship question President Trump proposed, which was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, hung over the heads of census planners and was a cause for panic.

Census staff called “enumerators” are already starting to verify addresses with large apartment complexes, including low-income housing, homeless encampments, and other folks who are likely to not have internet access or an address for census information to be mailed. Horn said after end of April enumerators will start knocking on doors of those who don’t respond.

Those employees have numerous forms of identification including a laptop, badge and bag with their logo on them, which Horn wants people to know so they can feel safe opening the door.

“With the fear of ICE in communities and increased ICE raids, we’ve been told some community members don’t leave their homes, don’t go to school, aren’t answering their door,” Horn said. “Living with that kind of fear has to take its toll.”

The city staff involved with the census are concerned about “fear factor” and lack of accessible options possibly deterring communities of color and other hard-to-count communities in Renton from completing the forms. On top of this, the federal government has offered little funding to states, counties and jurisdictions to promote the census, Washington state and King County are using other funds to create grants for nonprofits working on the census.

To combat this, they’re hoping to hire a project manager dedicated to the 2020 census, and they’ve created a step-by-step plan. The project manager position was approved by Renton City Council at the Sept. 22 council meeting.

“We recognize how difficult this is going to be, and we need to work as a jurisdiction to make sure everyone is counted,” Shridhar said.

Horn has some plans to address language barriers, in one part, by offering workshops that help Rentonites who struggle with literacy or need in-person translations, but she said before that people need to want to take the census.

School lunches, buses, community block grants, infrastructure funding and much needed Section Eight housing vouchers could all go up as more folks in Renton fill out the census. In 2010, Washington lost a median of $1,100 per person missed in the count.

How can Renton create trust among the community?

From the highest levels of Census staff, the message is to get “trusted messengers” in communities that are hard to count; refugees, immigrants, people of color, seniors, kids ages 5 and under and people experiencing homelessness or in a temporary living situation. On Sept. 10, Census Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Ron Jarmin came to Seattle to talk about getting everyone counted at a Washington Counts event.

Numerous nonprofits and groups from diverse groups in Washington attended and spoke about their concerns about preparing for the census with hard to count communities. Some said the narratives that Latinx folks are scared of the census weren’t true for the families they talked to, and was created that fear instead of squashing it.

Another representative said folks who remember how census data was used to round up Japanese Americans during WWII are skeptical their data wouldn’t be exposed. According to a Washington Post article from April, 79 Japanese Americans in the state of Washington had their information released. Census staff said since then, congress has enacted stronger restrictions.

Title 13 of the U.S. code restricts the census from sharing individual data with other government agencies, including immigration and law enforcement agencies.

For Renton, Shridhar said the census is also a regular topic at the Inclusion Task Force, as part of that “trusted messenger” plan. Members are being asked to start brushing the topic with folks at events, to put census information out there at a grassroots effort.

Here’s a video used by the city explaining the census with a trusted messenger:

Renton hopes to coordinate with the grant winners that are targeting South King County to avoid duplicate efforts, and also working to get a grant themselves. Horn said they will also get the word out with close partners that are “lifelines to people in Renton” including social services, local religious organizations and education partners.

“We really hope to blanket our community with information,” Horn said.

More information on the U.S. Census, and what you need to know, is available at 2020census.gov. Folks will start to receive mailings asking to fill out the census online in March 2020, and can also reply by mail or phone. Then in June through July, census takers will go door-to-door for people who haven’t yet responded.

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