With the 2020 census nearing, area governments and nonprofits are pushing to get Northern Virginia the resources it needs to count every person in the region — and to do that, they need to count as many people as possible. But in some places, it’s harder than others.
In 2010, Manassas was the hardest city or county to count in Northern Virginia, with residents returning only 74% of the mail-in forms. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, about 63% of the city’s residents live in what are called “hard-to-count” neighborhoods because of low income levels, lack of college education and low percentages of native English speakers. Add to those factors a distrust for the government or concern over a potential citizenship question (which garnered media coverage but will not appear on the 2020 census) and getting everyone counted becomes a challenge.
For the state, counties and cities, the incentive to get everyone counted is high. Aside from legislative representation in the U.S. Congress, funding for programs like Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers and more are divvied up based on census population data.
Count the Region, a Northern Virginia census outreach campaign launched by the nonprofit Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, estimates that Virginia stands to lose $1,215 in federal money for each resident not counted.
So cities like Manassas are doing what they can to get the word out. Ultimately, it’s the task of census takers hired by the Census Bureau to count the people who don’t take the survey online, but the city’s community development and communications departments are spearheading a public awareness campaign to count as many residents as possible.
“It’s not like we can fill out the census forms for people,” says Liz Via-Gossman, the city’s head of community development. “So our push is really two things: marketing and getting people to understand the importance of taking the census … and making sure that people have the ability to get the forms and fill them out online.”
The issue in Manassas is most acute in the Georgetown South neighborhood, where in 2010, more than 26% of households required in-person follow-up. So officials are making the neighborhood a priority for outreach and coordinating with local homeowner associations and churches to get the word out when the survey goes live in March.
“The approach is simple: hit the trusted voices in the community that people recognize,” said Jenée Padmore, who leads the Count the Region initiative. “Hit the churches, hit the electeds, hit the schools. Make sure they know.”
The 2020 census will also be the first to be mostly distributed online, unlike past decades when every household got a paper questionnaires distributed and returned by mail. While the online system is supposed to be more cost-effective, it adds a new challenge in counting people without reliable access to the internet. At the same time, the closest public library to the city closed earlier this week for renovations and won’t reopen until at least June. Officials are considering placing a computer in the lobby of Manassas City Hall for the sole purpose of letting people fill out the census.
“You can do it on the phone, but a lot of people don’t trust it,” said Patty Prince, the city's communications manager.
With its high number of “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, census takers are in high demand in Manassas. The Census Bureau is offering $24.50 per hour for census takers in Manassas, compared to $19.50 in Prince William County, where just 22% of residents live in “hard-to-count” areas.
To count the homeless population, census takers will make a three-day push in the area. On the first, they’ll visit shelters, then head to known tent camps before spending a day walking the streets, counting everyone living outside who hasn’t been counted.
Brian Engelmann, a county demographer, has proposed a $105,000 advertising campaign that includes placing ads on county buses, Google ads, social media, radio and print. The Prince William Board of County Supervisors will consider whether or not to approve the ad campaign at its next meeting on Jan. 21.
The county has launched a new web page, www.pwcgov.org/census, to inform county residents and encourage them to participate in a survey about their household.
The county is working with nonprofits and faith-based organizations to reach community members to encourage participation, and is seeking more volunteers who speak languages other than English to help reach as many people as possible.
Engelmann said the consequences of undercounting the county’s population could lead to an estimated loss of $168.9 million in federal funding allocated to the county over 10 years.
The Community Foundation is also getting the word out by purchasing television and digital advertising around the region. It also has set up informational tables at various community events in Northern Virginia. Padmore said that a lot of the region’s residents she interacts with don’t even know the census is coming up. Her message is simple: You have to respond, and you can trust that the information you provide is safe.
“As we’ve been working throughout last year and this year, we’re learning that you really can’t hit people too early,” Padmore says. “We’re counting on them.”
Emily Sides contributed to this report.