Allegheny County Census Committee Strategizes For 2020

Jul 31, 2019

In Washington, D.C., President Trump's tweets about immigration and a legal dispute have overshadowed next year’s U.S. Census. But in Allegheny County, community leaders want to be sure all residents will participate, despite the national controversies.  

Carrying out the census is “probably one of the unsexiest things that happens in a democracy,” said Gregg Behr, co-chair of the Allegheny County Complete Count Committee. “And yet it’s so critically important.”

Complete count committees are in charge of on-the-ground outreach to encourage residents to complete their census forms. Pittsburgh’s committee includes local leaders that work with traditionally hard-to-count groups, such as low-income families, homeless people and immigrants. The committee will publish its comprehensive plan to reach those populations this fall.

Behr said the committee is “trying to think creatively about all the places where we are, where we’re waiting, where we might be asking for help,” such as libraries, nonprofits and early learning centers.

Census data is used for purposes that range from parceling out government funding to determining the shape of legislative districts. “[The census] matters for political reasons, it matters for economic reasons and support for our region, and filling in all sorts of gaps in social services for the next decade,” Behr said. “This has a profound impact on all of our lives.”

Mary Esther Van Shura was involved with the 2000 and 2010 censuses as a city and county employee. About 80 percent of Allegheny County residents participated in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, a rate that is slightly higher than in many similar counties nationwide. But Van Shura said 2020 presents new challenges.

Among the concerns: While the Trump administration lost a highly contentious court fight over its efforts to ask census respondents about their citizenship, some observers worry that immigrants may be afraid to respond to the census anyway. That could lead to undercounts, especially in areas with large immigrant communities.

“Now, because of the highly charged political climate around the census, [the committee] is going to have to take obviously a different tack than we did back in 2010,” Van Shura said. “The word ‘census’ itself, it ends in us. I think the message this year has to be, ‘It’s all about us.’”

Behr and the committee started planning for the 2020 count just over one year ago. Among the challenges it faces, he says, is an increase in distrust of government compared to past decades, thanks to the debate in Washington.

"I think suspiciousness of government is heightened now versus in 2010, and that quite frankly falls across the political spectrum," he said. "To be sure, there are good reasons why refugee or immigrant communities like that might feel fear and suspicion."

He said that makes local efforts even more vital.

“I think in a political environment where there’s so much anger and resentment in discourse, that we make sure every single person feels like they have a place -- that they value Allegheny County as their home, that they recognize the importance of the census,” he said. “And as a bottom line, want to participate because it matters to them and their communities and this county.”

Behr said their efforts will probably need hundreds of thousands of dollars. The committee doesn’t expect much government funding, so it’s turning to local foundations for support, including the Grable Foundation, where Behr is the executive director.

“I like to think we’ve all been cognizant of the political swirlings and the headlines, and for a lot of us, it’s been troubling,” he said. “But this committee is smart and tactical and not letting ourselves get distracted.”