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With Millions At Stake, Hawaii Preparations Underway For 2020 Census

U.S. Census Bureau

The decadal counting of every person living in the United States is set to take place in April. There are significant financial consequences to undercounting.  

The U.S Constitution requires every single person living in the United States to be counted every 10 years. It’s called the enumeration clause, and the primary purpose is to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.  

But in the modern era, the Census count has another significant impact: federal funding.

The federal government uses something called formula funding to award federal grants to the states. In essence, it assigns money on a per capita basis for programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Hawaii receives billions of dollars every year for things like healthcare, education, and transportation. In education alone, 13 percent of the state’s annual funding for public school comes from Washington. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz says much of that hinges on the census.

“Probably half of the money that comes into the state of Hawaii is based on a formula per capita and if they think we've got 1.5 million we actually have 1.55 people then we're losing a significant percentage of the revenue to which we would be entitled if we completed the count.”

In the past, most people have responded to the Census using a survey mailed to their home. In 2010, 68 percent of Hawaii residents responded that way. Nationwide it was 74 percent. This year, for the first time, there will be an option to respond online.

But the Constitution requires every single individual to be counted. So the Census Bureau will deploy a small army of enumerators, who will go door-to-door on April 1st, 2020.

Issues like homelessness, immigration status, and language barriers are expected to deter many people from self-reporting. Although it was removed from the questionnaire under court order, a controversial citizenship question created nationwide fear among undocumented communities.

The Census Bureau is legally prohibited from sharing the data it collects with immigration and law enforcement agencies. But misinformation and skepticism of the government cause many to avoid responding. So census workers are partnering with local non-profits to do outreach well before surveys go out in March.

In Hawaii, that effort is being coordinated by the Hawaii Community Foundation. HCF Senior Vice President Michelle Kauhane has been organizing meetings between census workers, community groups, and non-profit organization.

“Our partners, who are reaching some of the most hard to count, are the community nonprofits that we work closely with. And we know that they can have a powerful impact on that complete count happening,” Kauhane said.

She estimates that over 10 years, Hawaii will lose $2 million in federal aid for every 100 people who aren’t counted.

Even foreign governments are taking an interest. Roughly 8,000 citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands live in Hawaii. Isabella Silk, Honolulu-based Consul General for the island republic, said her government has concerns about language barriers and misinformation.  

“During the last census there was a lot of information that was being provided to a lot of our citizens that was misinformed regarding the confidentiality of the questions. Also we want to ensure that the brochures and everything that has provided to them is also available in the Marshallese language,” Silk told HPR.

The physical census form will only be printed in English and Spanish, but the online questionnaire will be available in 12 non-English languages. Locally, the state government’s census outreach guide will be translated into 12 Hawaii-specific languages, including Marshallese.

But other issues remain. Congress still has to pass an appropriation bill to fund the census. Senator Schatz expressed optimism regarding the draft version of that funding bill, but cautioned that anything could still happen, given the extreme partisan atmosphere in Washington.

Schatz and others are also reaching out to social media companies, pushing them to address the spread of misinformation regarding the 2020 Census on their platforms.

In a letter, Schatz asked social media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter for help in controlling the spread of misinformation ahead of the count. The Census Bureau has undertaken a separate effort.

Schatz said expects an initial answer form the tech giants by the end of October, but thus far is pleased with the action he’s seen.

Census Day is April 1st, 2020.

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