ELLSWORTH — Starting next month every household in Ellsworth, and Hancock County, and Maine, and the entire country will start receiving the same thing in the mail — an invitation to fill out the 2020 census. Conducted every 10 years, the census asks just nine questions, and the goal is fairly straightforward — to get a headcount of every resident in the country. The results, however, are far-reaching and have a large impact on every Maine community, from how the state legislature is organized to the funding for the countless government programs that Maine residents rely on.
Federal agencies use census-derived data to help determine the annual allocation of roughly $675 billion in federal funding. In 2016, Mane received $4.1 billion through 55 federal programs, among them many that low-income residents depend on, from Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) to Section 8 housing grants and Head Start programs.
“That money that is distributed comes back to our communities through good quality schools, health care systems, nutrition, economic development, it really impacts everything,” said Becky Hayes Boober, who is a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau for the Midcoast and Downeast regions of Maine.
The census results also are used to determine state legislative districts and voting precincts.
“Because it’s used for redistricting in the state legislature it also impacts the flow of money around the state,” said Boober. “We are doing everything we can to get a full count, because if people don’t answer, Maine can’t get its fair share.”
Federal funds do not directly correlate to the results of the census, so there is no single dollar amount that an individual is worth to the state. Rather, that data is used over the next decade to create the data sets that the federal government uses to determine how funding is distributed. For a state like Maine, which in 2013 received about a third of its general revenue from federal aid, accurate census results can be especially important. The Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) uses census population counts to determine payments for Medicaid, CHIP, Title IV-E Foster Care, Title IV-E Adoption Assistance and the Child CARE Development Fund, totaling $286.1 billion in FY 2015. According to a 2018 study by George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, in 2015 Maine lost $1,642 of FMAP-driven funding per person missed, the third most of any state in the country.
Reaching hard-to-count communities
Trying to count everyone in the country is no small feat, and many communities are historically underrepresented. This includes children, immigrants and people of color, low-income and homeless populations and Native American tribal groups. 2020 is the first year that people will be able to respond to the census online, which also highlights the difficulties in counting rural communities that may lack widespread internet access.
Looking back a decade, 18.9 percent of Maine residents did not self-respond to the 2010 census, necessitating an in-person visit from a census worker. Census tracts that had a response rate of 73 percent or less are considered “hard-to-count.” In Maine, that includes Tremont and some island communities in Hancock County, as well as tribal lands in Washington County.
“To the extent that communities are undercounted and more rural communities tend to be harder to count, that tends to shift the balance of power even within Maine, so that’s something we definitely try to keep an eye on and make sure that those communities have the outreach they need,” said Ann Luther, treasurer of the League of Women Voters of Maine.
Overall, Maine is an aging state with slow population growth, but the opposite is true of some groups that are often undercounted or considered hard to reach. From 2010 to 2018, Maine’s population grew by just 1 percent. In that same time, however, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the state’s Hispanic population grew by almost 35 percent. These trends make getting an accurate count in the 2020 census an important measure in helping minority populations access resources in their communities.
In Washington County, which percentage-wise is the most diverse county in Maine, Mano en Mano is a nonprofit that works with the region’s farmworkers in Hispanic communities. This year, following a grant from the Maine Census Outreach Fund 2020, it is working on census outreach and education within a western Washington County population of approximately 400 people that includes “recent immigrants, non-English speakers, people of color, people without permanent housing and more. These communities include folks who have moved this year or will move in 2020, and workers living in employer housing,” wrote Jessica Hardwick, marketing and development associate with Mano en Mano.
Census data cannot be given away, and it is illegal for the Census Bureau to disclose any private information that can identify individuals. Among many immigrant populations, though, there may still be concern over what census data is used for, which can lower response rates and lead to undercounts. While the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a measure to include a citizenship question on the census, confusion or lingering fear may still remain among undercounted populations.
“For minorities in particular, undercounts can be devastating,” said Luther. “Just because that question was withdrawn doesn’t necessarily alleviate the sense of alarm that those communities might feel about participating.”
Hardwick added that Mano en Mano is anticipating challenges around perceptions of hostility from the federal government.
“We expect this confusion to continue in 2020 as a deliberate strategy to undercount particular communities, and we are working to counter this confusion in the communities that we work with and ensure that everybody is counted.”
Complete Count Committees
In October, Governor Janet Mills signed an executive order to create Maine’s Complete Count Committees, which work on outreach and education in hard-to-count populations.
“What we do is gather together and brainstorm and try to implement different strategies for getting the word out about the census. And there are dozens of these local committees now around the state,” said Kyle Hadyniak, communications director for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
The Complete Count Committees currently include dozens of local organizations, including libraries, chambers of commerce and the League of Women Voters. Additionally, state agencies such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services are tasked with providing census education and outreach through their current interactions with residents. The state Complete Count Committee is due to deliver a final strategy report to the Governor by March 1.
“It’s really important to get an accurate count,” said Hadyniak. “If you look at your elderly neighbor across the street and know they’re on Medicaid, that’s partially funded by the census. The same can be said of school lunches, highway construction, there are so many things that this data is vital for.”