With the next national census just a few months away, one of Maryland’s top lawmakers is raising alarms that Maryland may not be prepared to get an accurate count of its residents.
The state government’s census director left in December and the state has been slow to develop an outreach plan and dole out grants to help cities and counties get the word out, causing concern for House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones. The state hired Lorena Rivera to fill the census director position on Thursday, hours after The Baltimore Sun first reported the vacancy.
“Our state’s financial future is at stake, and our residents are counting on us, and accountability is critical,” wrote Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, to the state’s planning secretary, Robert McCord, earlier this week.
In her letter, Jones questioned why the agency waited until now to develop a marketing and media plan for the April 1 count and lamented that outreach grants are only just now being received by some local governments.
“With years of notice about the decennial census and robust funds provided by the General Assembly to prepare all residents, is there a comprehensive, detailed, timed and budgeted plan to ensure that all residents count?” Jones wrote in her letter.
Her concerns are echoed by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a member of the Complete Count Committee that advises the state on census preparation. Wilkins said committee members have been pressing to see details of the state’s plans for months.
“The census happens every 10 years and we knew this was coming. … We’re only weeks away and I’m not confident in the preparation that has taken place,” she said.
McCord said in an interview that he believes his department is ready to make sure that every Marylander is counted. He said his team has been diligent in developing an advertising and outreach strategy that will be ready in time for the final run-up to the official count.
“I live and breathe it and my interest is in getting everyone counted,” he said.
The census aims to count every resident in the United States, and that population data is used as the basis for funding decisions in myriad government programs. The information also is used in drawing new lines for Congressional and state legislative districts — meaning that some communities could gain or lose representation based on whether their population increases or decreases.
The data also is used for planning for public health programs, emergency preparedness and even recruiting new businesses to the state, McCord said.
McCord said he’ll talk to anyone who will listen about how their information is safe and how it will be used to help Maryland. On Wednesday, he met with the legislature’s Latino Caucus and the Maryland Association of Counties in Annapolis.
The state gets about $1,825 in federal aid each year for each person who is counted, meaning the state would miss out on $18,250 in total over the next decade for each person who isn’t counted, he said.
The planning department’s marketing strategy, however, is to wait until mid-March to blast out its pro-census message to Marylanders. That’s when Maryland residents will get their first postcard notices from the U.S. census about the impending count.
McCord said he worries that if the messaging starts too soon, people will get “census fatigue” and lose interest in filling out the forms.
“The call to action to fill out the form to respond to the census needs to come closer to the census actually being available to be filled out,” he said.
Residents will be able to complete the census on paper, online or by phone. In-person counting already has begun in remote parts of Alaska.
McCord said the state has distributed most of the $5 million that lawmakers budgeted for grants to local governments and nonprofits, and the rest will be announced in the coming days.
McCord said Wednesday he was “actively recruiting” for a new state census director while the department’s chief of staff, Adam Gruzs, temporarily handled the duties. Hours after this article was published online Thursday, McCord’s office announced the hiring of Rivera as the new census director. Rivera most recently served as the director of Hispanic affairs in the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives.
McCord said he will reach out to the speaker’s office directly to discuss her concerns. If Jones asks him to appear before any committees, McCord said he will gladly do so.
In the meantime, there’s little that lawmakers can do at this point to nudge the state to do more or speed up its efforts.
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Wilkins said she’s worried the state’s efforts will amount to too little, too late.
“The state hasn’t set us up for success,” she said.
Wilkins said she and other state delegates are working with their counties and cities, which are doing outreach too. And they’ll use their own social media accounts and community connections to spread the word.
“We’re going to be doing everything we can,” she said.
“The House of Delegates will continue to prioritize the 2020 Census in our communities,” Jones wrote in her letter. “It is critical that the executive branch takes the Census seriously and be held accountable to the residents.”
Concerns about census preparation have been raised nationally, as well.
Last week, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit in Maryland alleging that the U.S. Census Bureau has not opened enough offices, hired enough workers or conducted sufficient testing for the online census forms. The NAACP alleges those shortcomings could result in undercounting in communities with significant populations of people of color.