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The Challenges (and Importance) of Census Counting in Rural Colorado

With just days until the deadline, certain remote communities are still struggling to count everyone. Here’s why—and what’s at stake.

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Responding to the 2020 census is, in theory, quite easy. The questionnaire takes just a few minutes, and Coloradans can complete it online, by phone, or by mail.

In practice, however, it’s not so simple—particularly for rural residents and especially in the midst of a global pandemic. Though 98.3 percent of Colorado households have been tallied as of Wednesday, September 30 (slightly below the national rate of 98.7 percent), certain remote swaths of the state still lag behind.

With the count now officially ending on Monday, October 5—weeks earlier than expected, and despite a judge’s ruling that it go until the end of October—time is running out to close these gaps. We chatted with elected officials and census participation advocates in three rural Colorado counties to understand the challenges their communities face in getting counted, the creative tactics they’re employing to raise response rates, and—most crucially—what’s on the line if they fall short.

(MORE: How to the 2020 Census Could Impact Colorado)

What are the challenges to counting rural areas?

Jesse Albright, commissioner for Mineral County, believes his county was “very undercounted” in the 2010 census. Described by Albright as “one of the last places you can go 10 minutes and be away from everybody,” Mineral is among six rural counties in Colorado’s San Luis Valley (SLV) and the second-least populous county in the state. Hew Hallock, a member of the Complete Count Committee in the SLV, goes a step further, saying that he believes the entire region, which spans 8,193 miles of high-altitude landscape, was “definitely” undercounted in 2010.

This time around, Hallock has been especially worried about the count in Costilla County, a small farm and agriculture-based community that borders New Mexico and is home to many minority residents.“It has just been a challenge to reach folks out there,” Hallock says.

Rural communities are historically difficult to enumerate, but the pandemic has added additional challenges. For starters, “they’ve had a lot less time than more urban environments,” explains Gillian Winbourn, executive director of Together We Count, a statewide nonprofit that aims to ensure hard-to-count communities complete the 2020 census. That’s because in March, the U.S. Census Bureau started mailing census information, but only to U.S. households that receive mail at home. Residents who get their mail through the post office—which is the case in many rural areas—did not receive these mailers. Many instead were supposed to get packets delivered to their doors in March and April as part of the bureau’s Update Leave program, explains Janelle Kukuk, who serves on SLV Complete Count Committee and the state Complete Count Committee, and is leading census efforts in Mineral County.

But COVID-19 delayed the distribution of these packets. In Mineral County, they didn’t show up until June and July, confusing residents who had been told by county representatives that the packets would arrive much earlier. To make matters worse, June and July happens to be “the windiest time of the year” in Mineral, says Kukuk, and packets were blown into neighboring yards—or disappeared altogether.

These issues in Mineral underscore a broader challenge for rural counties: Simply getting the word out.

“One of our greatest challenges [for rural Colorado in general] was messaging and how to properly message in areas where broadband is not always dependable, where newspapers are few and far between, where radio stations may not be that prevalent or don’t serve a large service area so that targeting would be very difficult,” says Kukuk.

This lack of information—of residents not knowing what the census is and why it’s important—has been one of the biggest barriers to participation in Costilla, says Olga Montano, extended learning program coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club of SLV. Several people told Montano that they don’t remember doing the census in 2010—or even hearing about it.

And though the 2020 census marks the first time people can respond online, ostensibly making participation easier, that’s just not an option for some rural Coloradans. In Costilla, for example, 41 percent of residents do not have a broadband subscription, and those who do find the service “difficult or sketchy in many parts of the county and the outlying areas of the county,” says Hallock. On top of that, some residents don’t even have phones, says Montano, rendering yet another response method impossible.

Poverty and socioeconomic challenges, which afflict Coloradans across the state and have only been exacerbated during the current economic crisis, may also play a role. It’s tough to convince people “that [filling out the census] is important when they’re in a food bank line or worried about their health or their family’s health, or whether or not they have jobs,” says Rosemary Rodriguez, senior advisor at Together We Count. And mobile families, Rodriguez adds, may struggle to remember where and with whom they were living on April 1 (the day the census count is based on).

Hallock speculates part of the difficulty in counting Costilla County is also tied to the “uncertainty about the census.” He references the Trump  administration’s failed attempt to include a question about citizenship on the census form. “I think that put a lot of people off,” says Hallock. “I think some folks were concerned about their privacy.” And yet another issue in Costilla is the fact that some residents may not take kindly to enumerators knocking on their doors. “There’s a large part of the county that is kind of considered off-grid, where five-acre plots of land have been homesteaded and visitors aren’t always welcome,” Hallock explains. Those off-the-grid are also just difficult to track down, adds Kukuk.

Moreover, a large number of second homeowners in some rural communities, like Mineral and its neighbor to the west, Hinsdale, adds confusion to the question of who has been counted and how well counties are actually faring with enumeration. A Census Bureau map of current self-response rates by county shows Hinsdale’s rate at just 18.7 percent—the lowest in the state. But according to Kristine Borchers, Hinsdale County commissioner, about 85 to 90 percent of full-time residents have been counted as of last week. The 18.7 percent self-response rate, she explains, takes into account all housing units in the county, even though many of them are owned by folks whose primary residence is elsewhere. Mineral County faces a similar issue: The Census Bureau map shows a current self-response rate of just 24.7 percent, but according to Kukuk, 96 percent of occupied housing units have been enumerated as of Tuesday.

What’s being done to improve census counts in rural Colorado?

To combat these challenges threatening rural Colorado’s census count, various organizations, nonprofits, volunteers, and elected officials have donated money, time, and/or labor to close the gap. The LOR Foundation, for instance, awarded 44 grants of $1,000 each to nonprofits involved in census activities in rural Colorado.

One grant recipient is the Boys and Girls Club of SLV, where Montano has led efforts to increase response rates among minority populations in the SLV. By pairing census information printouts with free meals and craft activities for kids and then delivering these goods to local residents, Montano both encouraged census participation and supported struggling families. The Boys and Girls Club also hosted 26 “census stations” across the region, where residents could share their census information with census workers who then logged and submitted the responses electronically.

Members of the SLV Complete Count Committee also distributed two rounds of postcards to all PO Box holders in the valley and sent postcards to mailboxes in Conejos and Costilla counties “because we were seeing a low response in those areas,” explains Hallock. In addition, the committee offered small grants to nonprofit organizations and to SLV counties to do their own promotion efforts, like mailings, banners, and radio buys. In total, six counties received $2,000 each, says Hallock.

In Mineral, “there weren’t very many things we didn’t try,” says Kukuk, describing multiple mailings to individual landowners, census banners hung “all over town,” frequent social media posts, and word-of-mouth efforts.

What’s at stake if they don’t get counted?

Census data, collected just once every decade, dictates congressional representation and informs redistricting. It also influences how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are distributed across the country every year for programs like school lunches, construction, and health care. In the 2017 fiscal year, for instance, Colorado received an estimated $19.2 billion of census-guided funding, according to an analysis by George Washington University. Areas of the state that are undercounted risk both their voice and funding that supports and improves their communities.

In Hinsdale, for example, monies tied to the census data (and other sources) have allowed the county to pursue water, sewer, and road projects, says County Commissioner Borchers, as well as development activities at the local daycare center. And in Mineral County, funding based on census data is especially crucial for education and infrastructure, says Kukuk.

“It’s just incredibly important for rural counties who are always cash-strapped not to be shorted their ability to serve the population,” says Hallock. And that’s why, with only five days left to count, the efforts in rural Colorado continue.

“The enumerators are still out in force,” says Kukuk of Mineral County. “I think they’re going to work until the end.”

For more information on the 2020 census, including how to respond, click here

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