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Delaware coming together for a ‘complete count’ of its residents

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Peter Osborne

Over the next few months, you are going to hear the phrase “Complete Count” a lot in connection with the U.S. census, which kicks off April 1.

The George Washington University Institute of Public Policy says Delaware received more than $3 billion through 55 federal spending programs guided by data derived from the 2010 census.

That’s why it’s important to pay attention when you hear that “complete count” phrase because those people will be talking about how Delaware can optimize the federal funding it receives.

I would guess that most of the people reading this article are going to be counted. But you may be able to help ensure that everyone who lives (and works) in Delaware will be counted, including children, the homeless and homebound, and prison populations.

Gov. John Carney signed Executive Order 23 establishing Delaware’s Complete Count Commission on Aug. 9, 2018, and the General Assembly subsequently supported funding. Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long chairs the commission, which includes leaders from state agencies, municipalities, businesses, nonprofits, and communities. That group has been meeting regularly, establishing subcommittees, and identifying strategies to increase the state’s non-response rate.

“I see myself as having the lead seat in the rowboat, getting everyone working together and ensuring all the players are in sync,” says Hall-Long, who is chair-elect of the National Lieutenant Governors Association and believes that Delaware is creating a model for others to follow as they invest into obtaining a complete count.

It’s a huge effort, but a critical one.

Philanthropy Delaware President and CEO Cynthia Pritchard puts it succinctly: “If you don’t think the census pertains to you – think again.”

She then explained that “census data is used to determine local needs for roads, schools, rural development, veterans services, employment, child care, senior centers, housing, environment, incarceration, health care, and more. The numbers and demographics calculated in the census determine federal dollars allocated to states from all national programs for 10 years – until the next census is done.”

But it goes much deeper than that. Historically, the census has missed disproportionate numbers of racial minorities, immigrants, young children, and those living in poverty – the so-called “hard-to-count populations.” And that leads to inequality in political power, government funding, and private-sector investment for these communities. 

Back to Cynthia: “Census determines equal political representation; informs fair allocation of public, private and nonprofit resources; informs policy debates and decision-making; guides foundation strategies, investments, and evaluations; and measures socio-economic conditions.”

People in the economic development community will tell you businesses considering relocating to Delaware – or deciding whether to stay and expand – use census data to inform those decisions.

In addition, retailers can use the census to determine what product to offer on their shelves at each store. The National Association of Home Builders provides homebuilders and remodelers with housing-market information based on census data, including home values, income, and number of homeowners and renters in an area. Small businesses can use the data to identify potential customers and locations of competitors; compile information that can be used in business plans and loan application; and identify zip codes in their market area that don’t offer their products or services (e.g., grocery stores). They can use the Product Line data to assess different business strategies or the potential impact of new tax policies. 

But here’s the problem: Many people involved in the 2020 census believe that Delaware left at least $14 million on the table during the last census, based on an estimate that it can cost the state $2,200 per Delawarean not counted every year for the ensuing decade.

For example, one study says 10% of children up to age 4 were undercounted in the 2010 census, even though they were in households that completed the census. The impact of this undercount, according to the commission, was an estimated $5.3 million of federal dollars missed annually for Medicaid, CHIP, foster care, adoption, and child-care funding.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons says “ensuring that the 2020 census is fair and accurate will make a real difference for Delaware. It’s only with unbiased, accurate census data that we can ensure we’re making smart, targeted decisions about how to make federal investments in our communities, from transportation infrastructure to locating schools, hospitals, emergency response operations, and more. This isn’t about politics; this is about good government.”

“As the economy goes, so goes resources for nonprofits,” Sheila Bravo from Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement told me recently. She sees members of the commission and volunteers as “ambassadors.” As just one example, there is planned outreach to southern Delaware’s Haitian community to deliver census materials to their homes in both English and Spanish.

The good news is that the U.S. Census Bureau is implementing its first-ever, tech-based census in 2020, offering an online census form and mobile data-collection tools. The commission has worked with Delaware’s public library system to help residents who are unsure of how to complete the census online by offering free Wi-Fi at all 33 libraries and providing answers to questions.

This column sets the table for additional discussion on these pages and online about the process, culminating in one of our Deep Dive Delaware roundtables in the March 31 issue that will feature some of the people responsible for getting a complete count. 

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