A widely used rule of thumb says that each person counted in the U.S. Census represents $1,800 a year in federal funding. Oakland County has an estimated 211,507 people who are at risk of being undercounted, according to the Michigan Department of State. That would come to more than $380 million a year, or more than $3.8 billion over the course of a decade, in potentially lost revenue. For reference, Oakland County’s 2020 budget is $922 million.
“We rely upon federal funding for a great many of our programs that directly affect people and the quality of life in our county. We are a prosperous county, but we have a lot of people who experience hardship, who are living close to the poverty line, that these programs help ensure stability and a better life for,” says County Commissioner Janet Jackson (D-Southfield). She also is chair of the county’s Complete Count Committee, which is working to raise the rate of people who are counted in the 2020 Census.
The county is known for its robust economy. And its 2010 self-response rate of 74.8 percent was better than the national rate of 66.5 percent and the state’s rate of 69.5 percent. But that doesn’t mean it wants to leave money on the table.
Besides setting up the count committee, it has hired two special coordinators to manage day-to-day work on the census push. They and the committee have been working with “trusted voices” in communities to boost census response rates among what are called, in U.S. Census parlance, “hard to count” residents.
The census count affects government services such as Medicaid, food benefits, housing programs, schools and road upkeep.
It can also affect federal representation. The University of Michigan Popular Studies Center projects that Michigan could lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with population growth that lags behind the national average.
District 14, which includes areas in both Oakland and Wayne counties, could be the one to go away as part of a statewide redistricting. “It could potentially be that district,” Jackson says.
While the statewide count overall is what determines the number of districts, not single districts alone, Oakland County has reason to focus on its low-count areas. District 14 had a self-response rate of 63.2 percent in the last census, compared to 77.7 percent in District 11, which also covers a large chunk of Oakland County.
“We have to make sure we count everybody in that district to make sure we don’t lose representation,” Jackson says.
Complete Count Committees are organized by state and local governments throughout the country to focus promotion efforts more precisely within communities. Oakland County’s committee has been working with people in minority neighborhoods and faith-based communities and with seniors, as well as with other committees at the municipal level. “We’re using past data to find hard-to-count areas and demographics within,” Jackson says.
Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub (R-Bloomfield Township) is vice chair of the committee, and Commissioner Angela Powell (D-Pontiac) also sits on it. Pontiac, whose self-response rate in 2010 was 60.7 percent, has the county’s heaviest concentration of hard-to-count neighborhoods. The Chaldean community of Bloomfield Township has been hard to count as well, Jackson says.
Besides the three commissioners, eight other committee members are variously focused on education, community, minority, local government and faith-based groups.
More work is also going into counting homeless and displaced people by going into shelters and food banks. “There was not so much emphasis and effort to making sure those individuals were counted” in the past, says Oakland County Census coordinator Tyrone Jordan.
Organizations such as Lighthouse and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan are helping this effort in Pontiac.
Besides shelters, this focus on such “group quarters,” or group living situations, should also lead to better counts at college dorms.
College students also have long been hard to count because of confusion over whether to count them at their parents’ addresses or at school.
Michigan seniors have been another hard-to-reach segment because many leave during colder months. The Oakland Complete Count Committee is working with the Area Agency on Aging to make sure they also get counted.
Getting the message across to people about how important the U.S. Census is at a local level is challenging in the best of conditions. This year’s conditions are anything but.
This will be the first time the U.S. Census has offered an online option for people to do their civic duty. That is intended to help improve the country’s national self-response rate of 66.5 percent. In Oakland, digital kiosks have been placed in libraries, government offices and other public spots throughout the county. The online option should also improve counts among students.
But it comes with heightened fears over foreign meddling in the country’s internal affairs and an atmosphere tainted by disinformation in general. Trying to convince someone already paranoid about government intrusion to answer federal questions can be a tall order.
And then there’s the political climate to consider. The country’s epic divisions seem to have a way of working themselves into anything connected to government these days. Added to that is the White House’s push to get a citizenship question put on the census questionnaire for the first time. That effort was thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that it was attempted at all remains in the back of many people’s minds — especially those already leery of the census. The census has always counted citizens and noncitizens alike, the point being to get an accurate tally of the population of the country.
The communities most leery of the census tend to be those of color, including immigrants.
“There is confusion with the citizenship question. We have to allay fears about that,” Jackson says. “This is why the Complete Count Committee structure was instituted, to provide trusted voices at the grassroots level, community members who people are familiar with, so they know that the census is secure and safe.”
Counting People … and Paychecks
Picking up the rear is the army of temporary workers known as enumerators. The U.S. Census Bureau hires them to go out and hand-deliver census forms and reminders and personally conduct census interviews on people’s doorsteps. This is done to account for people who do not return their forms by April 1.
Recruitment was slow at first, but it has picked up — no doubt thanks to a boost in pay.
The pay for enumerators varies according to county. Oakland County has the highest range in Michigan: between $22 and $24.50 an hour.
“The pay here was increased to attract workers,” Jackson says. “Our county is pretty prosperous.”
Training also is paid. Expenses such as vehicle mileage can be reimbursed. The hours are flexible; many do it in their off-hours from their regular job. That point is key in this year of low unemployment.
Contrary to what many people believe — and what is usually the case when taking even a part-time job — state benefits such as those provided through the Bridge Card and Medicaid won’t be taken away if a person takes a census enumerator job, Jordan says. “Michigan got a waiver, so your benefits will not be affected, and it’s in writing,” he says.
He also says a rumor has circulated that the last day to apply for a job had been set at March 11, but that’s not true. Active recruitment stops on April 1 (Census Day), but people can still apply afterward.