By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
The Dallas City Council discussed the 2020 census update at its briefing meeting held at Dallas City Hall, March 4.
“Today, we are going to focus and give you a deeper dive on our outreach efforts, our plans and our plans moving forward,” said Kimberely Bizor Tolbert, chief of staff to the city manager’s office.
The census is conducted every 10 years and the information collected is used by the federal government, which distributes around $675 billion in funding for education, transportation, health care, housing and more. It is also used for redistricting, congressional representation and for business, jobs and amenities.
“For more than a year now city staff have been working hard to gear up for the census,” Brett Wilkinson, managing director of the office of Strategic Partnerships and Government Affairs said. “Many other states have funded in many instances very robustly census outreach efforts. California for example has appropriated over $150 million. Texas … zero. So I think the work that we are doing here locally with the city and our partnership with the county is even more critical. As a staff, we have been engaged over a year now. We implemented the city’s 2020 strategic plan which has been adopted countywide now and is being used by other cities in the region. We worked with the mayor’s staff and city council to establish the complete count committee and we roughly have now 200 plus people that are engaged in that effort.”
Alpha Business Images was hired by the city to do the census outreach. Sophia Johnson, president of Alpha Business Images, discussed what is unique about this year’s census.
“It’s a new census,” she said. “Our job is to figure out why people would not fill out the census. Our emphasis is on the hard to count area. The challenge this year is that the census for the first time is being made available online and by phone. You will receive an invitation by mail in two weeks but you will not receive a paper invitation in the mail. Only 5.8% will get an invitation by mail and so for us we look at what is a barrier and we look at how does that affect people and how does that exclude people. If you get an invitation that says fill it out online and let’s say you don’t have online access, on your fourth mailing which comes in the middle of April you will get a paper census if you have not filled it out online. From that point on, you will get a reminder and then the federal government will go door to door. Because of that and because nationally when the government does surveys, the numbers continue to decline year after year.”
She went on to explain that the government is expecting the national self reporting rate to be at 55% and for Dallas County it would be 59%.
“That’s a concern for us and it might say that we have a million people undercounted,” Johnson said, stating that the challenge they are concerned about is the hard-to-count areas, which have a low-self response rate.
Specific populations that fall into the hard to count areas include: families with children ages newborn to five years old, low-income persons, racial and ethnic minorities, highly mobile populations, the homeless population, undocumented immigrants, those who distrust the government, persons from the LGBTQ community, and persons with disabilities.
“The census is also supposed to be available online between March 12 and March 23,” Johnson said. “This is the federal government rolling out a software computer program for the whole nation. So we are being cautious in those first two weeks about how we interact with our residents and how we are pushing them because we want to see this system in place.”
She said the new online system of participating in the census has some challenges as well.
“Southern Dallas has below average internet subscription service,” she said. “Also, there is a climate of fear instigated by push for citizenship questions and an increased distrust in releasing personal identification information with a lot of scams that have been happening, especially associated with threats to housing and benefits. Our challenge is how do we make sure that we have hot spots at those locations and internet service available. With the census we don’t have a big day, we have until July 31 to keep saying each time fill out your census so it definitely is a marathon and that is how we mapped it out these first few weeks.”
Johnson said they have had an emphasis on segmenting out the audience.
“Research has shown that what has worked for one community does not work for another community,” she continued. “So there may be a community that is afraid that they are going to lose their house or they are going to be deported. There is a message for that specific community which is different than a community who says they are interested in congressional representation. What we have done is segmented our audience and said how do we make sure we know who is influencing these people and how do we make sure we know how these people are gathering. Because what we have to do is build this great network in a short amount of time to make sure that all the citizens of Dallas and Dallas County are counted.”
She went on to say that they have been creating tools for specific groups and took the time to create focus groups with their own community.
“Because how we feel locally may not be how the national audience feels and we have tested those messages and been able to find out what is going to resonate with some things you may make an assumption about,” Johnson said.
She explained that her group has been working on partnership cultivation to get the word out about the census.
“We’ve completed our focus groups, we will be hiring and training block walkers and we have been doing that in February and we will be going through March,” she said. “Also, dallascensus.com has a host of resources in English and Spanish that one can use. The website and social media has expanded and in addition to downloadable assets such as email and social posts Census Live! will begin its soft launch of canvassing and online sign-up March 14 through March 30. Dallas ISD and Dallas Public Libraries will have opportunities available for people to go to their facilities to complete the census online during that time period.
“We are teaming up with businesses and organizations of 129 nonprofits and they will also be participating in Census Live! locations,” she said.
On Census Day, which is April 1, Johnson said her group will have a press conference and festivities, including activations all over the city.
“Our strategy has to be to borrow credibility and leverage influencers such as trusted organizations, community leaders and social media influencers,” Johnson said. “We will educate at gathering places and events and have media partnerships with donated ad space and have coverage of the census. We will also be taking a mobile unit hot spot to areas that may not have internet coverage such as apartment heavy geographic areas and we will take tablets there. “Our goal is to surpass the predicted self-response rate of 59% for DFW.”