U.S. Census Bureau

Madison is looking for help from community partners to help the federal government complete the once-a-decade tradition of counting every person in the United States.

The 2020 Census will be different than previous decennial surveys, underscoring the importance of local groups who have the community’s trust to communicate information about the census.

It will be the first time people can respond to the census online, though the traditional paper form will still be available. It is also unclear whether the census will include a controversial question the Trump administration wants to add: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

Ben Zellers, a city planner, said Madison realizes that “not everyone is necessarily going to appreciate hearing from the government on the census.”

“We know that there’s a certain level of trust people already have with existing community organizations, so we want to be able to engage with trusted partners,” Zellers said.

The community partners will be critical in reaching what the Census Bureau calls “hard to count” populations — people of color, immigrants, college students, low-income households, residents experiencing homelessness, renters, young children — in the city and town of Madison. 

Partners could include nonprofit, community-based organizations, grassroots groups or individuals. They will be charged with motivating people to fill out the census, which determines how political power and federal tax dollars are shared over the next 10 years.

Getting the message out can be challenging, Zellers said.

“People might just think of the census as sort of some government survey that might not make too much of a difference in their lives going forward,” Zellers said. “Regardless of who you are and where you live, the census can have a big impact on communities.”

The 2020 population numbers affect the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. The census will also determine how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal funding is distributed for public services, like schools and roads.

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“There’s so much at stake,” said Ellisa Johnson, assistant regional census manager. “This is a once-in-ten-years opportunity to be counted.”

Johnson said the bureau relies on community partners to overcome barriers that keep people from filling out the census, such as a heightened distrust of government, and to connect with hard-to-reach groups, including emergent immigrant populations.

“If we hired within some of those communities, it allows us to overcome some of those barriers,” Johnson said.

The city of Madison anticipates investing up to $100,000 to support between four and six outreach partners selected through an application process. Partners funded as an organization could receive between $10,000 and $25,000 and partners funded as an individual will receive between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on the proposed scope.

Applications are due July 3, and the city anticipates to select partners by July 19.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.