PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is the hardest state in New England in which to get a full, accurate count of the population, according to US Census Bureau standards.
The Census Bureau designates a geographic area as “hard-to-count” if its self-response rate in the 2010 census was 73 percent or lower. By that standard, 24 percent of Rhode Islanders live in “hard-to-count” neighborhoods — the highest percentage of any state in New England (followed by Massachusetts at 23 percent ) and the 12th highest in the nation, according to Common Cause Rhode Island data.
So the Rhode Island Census 2020 Fund is making $425,000 available in small grants to local groups to bolster efforts in hard-to-count communities.
“Rhode Island cannot afford an undercount in the 2020 census,” said Jessica David, the Rhode Island Foundation’s executive vice president of strategy and community investments.
For one thing, she said, Rhode Island relies on the census count for $3.8 billion a year in federal funding, and the state could very well lose one of its two seats in the House of Representatives after the next census.
“We are very concerned,” said David, a member of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee. “Obviously, we have communities that are vulnerable to being undercounted.”
For example, the state contains groups of people who are often hard to count — including both documented and undocumented immigrants, refugees, English language learners, younger children, people of color, homeless people, homebound older residents, and college students, she said.
“So we definitely need to get in touch with all of these communities and tell them why it matters,” David said.
To boost that effort, the Rhode Island Census 2020 Fund is making grants of between $1,000 and $25,000 available to Rhode Island-based nonprofits, municipal governments, public agencies such as libraries and schools, houses of worship, and community-based organizations. The grants must support activities that raise awareness about the census, and must focus on a specific demographic community or geographic area at risk of undercounting.
This time around, the attempt to reach hard-to-count communities is complicated by the Trump administration’s failed attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Also, the Associated Press recently reported that the Census Bureau is asking states for drivers’ license records that typically include citizenship data. State officials say Rhode Island has not received such a request from the Census Bureau.
But John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, emphasized that, “The Constitution is crystal clear that the census is to count every resident of the United States, regardless of their citizenship status. Any attempt to discourage participation by non-citizens is an affront to that constitutional purpose.”
David said, “We know the citizenship question is not on the census questionnaire, which is good news, but there is still a culture of distrust and fear, which we understand.”
The Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing individual census information with other federal agencies, she noted. “We try to convince people that the information will not be used for ill, and we say the census is important for everyone — it affects money for local schools, libraries, roads and bridges.”
In the 2010 census, the municipalities in Rhode Island with the lowest self-response rates were Central Falls (60 percent), Providence (62 percent), Pawtucket (66 percent), Little Compton (69 percent), Woonsocket (69 percent), and Newport (70 percent), according to Common Cause data.
Marion, a member of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee, noted the state’s “hard-to-count” areas include not just urban core neighborhoods but also places such as Kingston, home to the University of Rhode Island — which underscores the difficulty in getting college students to respond to census surveys.
A total of $1.2 million is available to encourage 2020 census participation in Rhode Island. The state budgeted $500,000, the federal government added $200,000, and private donors are providing $500,000 for the Rhode Island Census Fund, which is being administered by the Rhode Island Foundation.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time there has been a community-based effort to encourage census participation in Rhode Island,” Marion said. “In the past, we have relied solely on the Census Bureau.”
Other states have invested big bucks in bolstering their census counts, he said, noting California is spending $187 million on census outreach.
“For Rhode Islanders, millions of dollars of federal money and political representation for their communities hang in the balance,” Marion said. “It is imperative we make sure every Rhode Islander participates in the census.”
Those interested in the Census 2020 Outreach Grants may attend an information session from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Nonviolence Institute, 265 Oxford St., Providence. Registration information is available at rifoundation.org/censusgrants.