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Feb 10, 2020
Posted Under: 2020 Census

Let’s take a quiz. What do these three things have in common?

  1. The 6th line in the United States Constitution
  2. Only 10 questions
  3. 18% of federal dollars flow directly into Alaska nonprofits every year

Did you guess it right? Well if you said the U.S. Census – then you sure did.

Just what is the census? As I alluded to above, the census is enshrined in our constitution and requires the federal government to count every person living in the United States every ten years. Remarkably, it is the single largest peacetime mobilization by the federal government and while it is the job of the census bureau to do all the counting, we sure can make their efforts a little bit easier by helping Alaskans know the facts, know their rights, know why it matters, and know how to participate.

Ultimately the census is just 10 questions that will take 10 minutes and will have 10 years of impact.

Because of its importance to Alaska’s future and particularly to the nonprofit sector, the 2020 Census is Foraker’s top public policy priority, and I hope it is yours, too. After all, about 18% of 3.2 billion federal dollars flow directly into Alaska nonprofits every year. We simply could not miss an opportunity to have a more positive impact on Alaska and our nonprofit landscape. And, thankfully, we are not alone in seeing the potential we could have by working together to achieve a successful 2020 Census.

About four years ago, as part of our initial focus on the census, we created the Alaska Census Working Group, a statewide, nonpartisan assembly of stakeholders committed to ensuring an accurate count of Alaskans. Unfortunately, we had little information about past efforts to promote the census in Alaska, along with the unsettling reality that the count was going to start soon, and the U.S. Census Bureau was hamstrung by a lack of adequate funding and other constraints. We knew that if Alaska was going to have a better result in 2020, we had to do things differently.

Before I share more with you about the ways we are doing this, I want to give a huge “shout-out” to our key partner in the working group, Cook Inlet Housing Authority. CIHA has joined us in making significant in-kind contributions of staff and resources. I also want to acknowledge the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. They have been an important part of our team over the past year, especially with their work to translate census material into the languages of Alaska Native peoples. This is truly a team effort, and we are grateful for all the working group partners across the state. We are also grateful for our funding partners who have invested alongside Foraker and CIHA to make this work come alive: the Census Equity Fund, Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska Community Foundation, Providence Health and Services, and the Native American Rights Fund. We want to thank GCI and Alaska Airlines for their in-kind support in helping us spread the word across Alaska. You can find links to all these amazing Alaska partners here, and if you have relationships with any of them, please thank them for supporting the census.

To be sure, what we have created is seen as a grand exception to the rule of how states are organized to promote the census. Indeed, we have created a model that other states and national organizers tell us is a hallmark success in its very creation, structure, multi-sector participation, and operation. We hope that turns out to be true for the results as well.

So, how have we accomplished this so far? With little to go on we started our efforts in what we called our “air game.” In this phase, the working group focused on sharing the importance of the census with policymakers and advocated for appropriate funding and sufficient resources at the federal and state level. We also established relationships with U.S. Census Bureau staff at the national, regional, and state level.

In June 2019, we shifted to a “ground game” and started the outreach phase where we are engaging Alaskans and emphasizing the importance of the count. We have received tremendous support from the Alaska-based census staff. They have been a terrific partner even with limited resources. And as true partners, the working group and census staff have focused on combining resources to spread all our capacity as far as it will stretch.

Finally, last fall we were proud and excited to launch Alaska Counts, a statewide education campaign. (See the story below to learn more about Alaska Counts and how you can become involved in promoting the census.)

And now the day has arrived – the census is happening. While the rest of the country and most households in Alaska won’t be counted until March, the census started early in Alaska in Toksook Bay. Read the news reports of the first count here and here.

What’s next? It’s time to expand our efforts and that’s where we rely on all of you. Whether your community has started or is getting ready to start, now is the time to engage – because the census really does matter to our future.

Why does the census matter?

We have 3.2 billion reasons to care about the census – that’s how many federal dollars flow into Alaska each year based on census data. This funding goes to every Alaskan community for everything from roads and airports to hospitals and schools. Given current state and local budget gaps, it is increasingly important that Alaska receive its fair and equitable share of these federal resources. If Alaskans go uncounted in the census, our state does not receive its fair share of this funding. And the impacts aren’t for one year or two, but for 10 years. We only have one shot at this every 10 years, and it’s so important that we get it right in 2020.

Beyond funding, there are many other reasons the census matters. Organizations across sectors rely on accurate census data to plan for the future. Whether it’s a local government determining need for a new program, or an airline deciding whether or not to add another route, or a store deciding where it should open, all of it depends on good census data.

When we think of why census matters, we often say it is about Democracy, Data, and Dollars.

In terms of democracy, we think of the census as something specific to the government sector – conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to determine how congressional and other elected seats are apportioned and how federal funds are distributed. That it all true and the census also helps reinforce the voting and civil rights laws.

I often say the census data is like toothpaste. We all have it. We all use it. But rarely do we consider how it was made or where it comes from. Census data is everywhere. Census data is used by businesses of all sizes and from all parts of our state to plan for the future and make decisions about where and when to invest in our communities. Whether it’s data on our biggest cities or our smallest communities, for our largest companies or our small local businesses, census data informs business decisions everywhere.

The census also determines funding for services that make our state and the places we live and work thrive – services like police and fire, roads and airports, hospitals and schools. When all Alaskans are counted, our state receives its fair share of federal funding for these programs, and more Alaskans are hired in each of these sectors.

The risks of not having accurate data could mean a reduction in federal funds for our state and local governments, an inability to plan for the future by our local communities, improper enforcement of the voting and civil rights laws, and possibly the reduction of essential services. There is so much at stake.

What challenges stand in the way of a complete count?

For all of these reasons, we know that an accurate census count is critical for our state. But we also know that Alaska is known to be one of the most difficult states to count. Every part of Alaska is considered by the census bureau to be hard to count in varying degrees. 2010 census data tells us that certain groups are especially at risk of being undercounted, including Alaska Native peoples and American Indians and Alaskans living in remote/rural parts of the state.

But it’s not just our remote communities that are difficult to count. Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and just outside Fairbanks had some of the census tracts with the lowest response rates in the country in 2010. And we know that some residents – racial/ethnic minorities, children under the age of 5, low-income earners, and renters – are especially at risk of being undercounted.

Whether in Anchorage or remote Alaska, we’re working to remove barriers to a complete count like:

  • A general distrust of government – This is magnified by concerns about data privacy and confidentiality.
  • Language barriers – The census bureau will only provide direct translation of census forms for 12 non-English languages, none of which are Alaska Native.
  • Barriers to connectivity – This will be the first census to push online responses. While not all households in Alaska will be asked to respond online, we need to be aware of where digital divides exist in our state and how we will overcome these to make sure that all Alaskans can respond to the 2020 Census. We appreciate the headway that the census bureau is making in hiring census workers in Alaska villags to do a paper count. That still leaves all of our more urban places with a mostly internet-based process.

The answer to overcoming these barriers is to get involved. We strongly urge you to do just that. Alaska Counts has resources and ideas to help you. And consider getting in touch with your local Complete Count Committee. CCCs are a great opportunity for local messaging and local messengers to get the word out about the census and a great way for local entities to get involved in spreading the word. While the working group is a statewide effort, CCCs provide an opportunity for organizations and individuals to help in a more focused way.

The bottom line is that as a nonprofit leader your voice and action matter to ensuring an accurate count in 2020. You are a trusted voice and have access to so many Alaskans who are considered hard to count. Your nonprofit relies on census data every day even if you don’t see it. You can have a significant impact in Alaska, with the people and communities you serve, and for your friends, neighbors, and democracy.

If you have questions about what you and your organization can do, call us. We have answers and ideas for you.