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U.S. Census Bureau taps local governments to help count the uncounted


Numbers, numbers. What do they even mean?

In Rock County, when it comes to U.S. Census Bureau counts, the hope is the numbers will mean more and be more representative of the local population than perhaps they’ve been in the past.

That could be tough for the U.S. Census Bureau. Consider some local census tracts—Janesville’s Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods, for instance. There, only about half of all households initially responded to mailers sent by the U.S. Census Bureau during its last five-year inventory, the 2013-17 American Community Survey.

The numbers indicate about 45% of the 4,000 residents in those two neighborhoods were at risk of not being counted. That’s troubling, considering that the data the census collects is the bedrock information used in dozens of federal decisions.

How does the fed decide the alignment or realignment of Congressional representation? The census.

What’s the yardstick used to decide what cut a Rock County community gets of a $675 billion pot of federal aid? The census.

That’s just two examples of what’s at stake in the U.S. Census Bureau’s upcoming 2020 decennial count—a lofty attempt every 10 years to carry out a Constitutionally mandated human tally and socioeconomic assessment of every person who lives in the U.S.

A ‘complete count’

In the U.S. Census Bureau’s eight-state, Chicago region alone, that’s about 56 million people—or roughly 23 million households, said Ellisa Johnson, the Chicago region’s assistant regional census manager.

At a local level, the census now is canvassing local communities, and it’s trying to improve the chances of getting a full count by enlisting local “complete count committees.”

The committees, Johnson said, are groups of local municipal government officials and local experts who partner with the federal bureau by reaching out to especially hard-to-count populations in the months leading up to March 2020, when the 10-year census collection begins in earnest.

In early 2020, people will start getting “self-response” mailers prompting them to fill out and return a six-question form that will serve as their own, personal federal tally mark for the next decade.

“Self-response,” as the census considers it, is the first step. Those who return the mailers eliminate the need for census takers to later hoof it to nonresponders’ homes—or the homes where they may have lived weeks earlier before moving—to try to get census forms filled out.

David Godek, the clerk-treasurer for the city of Janesville, leads the local complete count committee.

Godek said he’s already assembled a panel of officials, including liaisons to the local African American and Hispanic communities, demographic groups that local officials say can be difficult for the census to reach, let alone convince to fill out a census form.

Godek and Johnson said homeless children, renters and young adults typically are difficult for the census to reach.

The U.S. Census Bureau believes emerging groups such as the growing immigrant population and non-English speaking residents will pose a challenge in getting responses, Johnson said.

Godek used one example to explain why Janesville has a complete county committee:

“A lot of people don’t realize, but they should realize it, is that federal funds are a lot of times tied to population the census shows. Things like the school lunch program are tied to that. So, if we’ve got a lot more kids here than we actually reported (through the census), that means we’re not going to get the kind of (federal) funding for the lunch program that we really should get,” Godek said.

That doesn’t mean a block of uncounted, local kids suddenly would be staring at empty school lunch trays. But, Godek pointed out, it certainly could leave federal money on the table, and it could create a local funding gap for a program such as school lunch. That could lead to an increase in local taxes.

In Janesville, the Fourth Ward’s recent 54% rate of self-response to the census is abysmal compared to the 82% state average for response to the 2010 census, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

And an interactive census map shows that all but a few of the 17 census tracts in and around Janesville had self-response rates of 75% or less during the last five-year counts.

Johnson said the U.S. Census Bureau considers tracts with self-response rates below 75% to 80% to be areas of concern, and the tracts are earmarked for special focus by the bureau and local complete count committees.

The major role of the local committees is to help the first-blush, self-response period in March net as many responses as possible.

That means reaching residents early in low-turnout tracts such as the Fourth Ward to help residents understand the purpose, importance and utility of the census.

Godek said his committee plans to focus outreach through nonprofit agencies that have officials on the committee, including a public awareness campaign through mailers, flyers and social media.

Godek said the task might be easier than during the 2010 Census, when social media was still nascent.

Johnson said in 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to lean as heavily as it can on the web version of the census form, which residents can fill out and submit online. It’s the first 10-year census to allow online submission of forms.

Fear and trust

For some geographic pockets in Rock County, technology won’t necessarily make things easier. Another complication is a social and political climate that officials say has made certain groups less comfortable with census officials or other government actors wearing lanyard IDs, carrying laptops, knocking on doors and asking questions.

Take the Hackett neighborhood on Beloit’s west side. There, just 41 percent of the tract’s residents initially responded to the 2013-17 American Community Survey, according to census data.

That’s a silent majority—59 percent in all—among the 5,000 people who live in that neighborhood and would be counted only if census workers later locate them through phone calls or visits. That’s the lowest self-response rate for any urban census tract in Rock County.

According to recent census data, about one-third of households in the Hackett tract have no internet access, and almost one-quarter of the households there don’t have a computer or smartphone. More than half the residents are renters, and nearly 20% of them have moved from another residence within the last year.

Notably, about one-third of the population in the Hackett tract is Hispanic—and about 10% of that population is predominantly Spanish speaking, according to census data.

Marc Perry, a leader of social service agency Community Action, is part of Beloit’s complete count committee for the 2020 census. He said he’s not surprised the Hackett tract shows to be dramatically underrepresented.

“That neighborhood has a large Hispanic population, a large population of move-around renters and a large population of people living below poverty. All those factors create a perfect storm for people who do not trust other people coming to knock on their doors,” Perry said.

“There’s a fear that the system is there to screw you and that someone knocking on your door is there to take something from you,” Perry said.

The U.S. Census Bureau already has said its 2020 census form won’t ask individuals about their immigration status. And Johnson said the bureau has launched a campaign to make clear that its databases of personal identifying information are heavily secured, keeping people’s information fully confidential.

Still, in recent weeks, national headlines have chronicled a leak of visitor records from a hotel company to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that resulted in deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Perry said Beloit’s complete count committee is being bolstered with local members who are black and Latino and have close ties to those communities.

He said the committee seeks to help build trust with those groups now and make it easier for the U.S. Census Bureau to do its job during what for some has become a chilling time.

“It’s hard, especially when you’ve had ICE raids locally,” Perry said. “I mean, it’s hard to get people to trust that the person knocking on their door with a clipboard asking all these very personal questions about you and your family, that the person is not going to turn around and turn you or your family in.”

Angela Major 

3-year-old Stella Loverine pets a cow Saturday, August 31, 2019, at the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn.

Angela Major 

Elkhorn High School students Bella Heistad-Johnson, left, and Alexis Klein, right, sit with their friends in the Ferris wheel Thursday, August 29, 2019, at the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn.

Angela Major 

Families Fighting Addiction President Tracy Burtis, middle, smiles with Overdose Awareness Walk participants as they pass through Riverside Park in Beloit on Saturday.

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Then and now: ‘Giving blood is a gift’


Today, people take it for granted that blood will be available at the hospital if they need it.

Nancy Nienhuis remembers a time when those who required blood for upcoming surgeries had to find donors.

“You needed two donors for every pint you used,” the Janesville woman said. “Each local hospital had a blood bank.”

Workers at General Motors often gave blood for people who had no way to find donors.

“If you were in an accident or elderly, people in the community were on a donor list and would give during an emergency,” Nienhuis said.

She remembered how things used to be when she read a recent story in The Gazette about a 49-year-old Janesville man who had major heart surgery as a toddler.

In the early 1970s, the community responded with compassion and turned out in numbers to donate blood for the child.

“Often, local hospitals didn’t have adequate supplies and types of blood,” Nienhuis said. “Especially if there was a major accident.”

Nienhuis, a retired General Motors nurse, was part of a group that worked with the American Red Cross of Wisconsin to set up blood drives in Janesville almost 50 years ago.

“The Red Cross volunteered to come up with the manpower,” Nancy Hansen-Bennett said. “In those days, they used the Armory, larger churches and GM.”

Hansen-Bennett; her husband, Al; and Nancy Russo were key players in the early drives. They made phone calls to get volunteers, while the Red Cross provided nurses.

“A lot of firefighters and police officers helped set up the sites,” Hansen-Bennett said. “Many people were involved.”

Volunteers also helped line up babysitters to take care of children whose parents were giving blood. In winter, they took donors to the blood-drive site. Sometimes, they even served homemade pie.

“It took the whole community to make it successful,” Nienhuis said. “We tried to think of every angle to get donors.”

Al Bennett was among volunteers who drove the blood to the Red Cross in Madison. At the time, he was a member of the fire department. Through the years, he has donated 18 gallons of blood.

“Now, it is a far more efficient system,” Nienhuis said. “But blood still has to be given by a person, and giving blood is a gift.”

Today, the Red Cross comes to Janesville regularly for blood drives and has a national distribution network.

“Back then, it was all local,” Tom Mooney of the American Red Cross said, explaining there was no certainty about how much blood or what types of blood would be collected.

Blood has a shelf life of about 46 days.

“The last thing we want is for blood to sit on the shelf and not be used,” Mooney said. “Hospitals can’t keep a ton of blood on their shelves. They work closely with us so we can get the blood there when they need it.”

The American Red Cross provides almost 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply. The rest comes from smaller agencies.

“We collect about 13,000 to 14,000 units per day to supply our hospitals,” Mooney said.

Donors can give blood every 46 days.

The Madison Chapter of the Red Cross has blood drives at both high schools in Janesville and relies on high schools in its distribution area, which includes most of Wisconsin, to provide 25 percent of its inventory.

“We need younger donors who become lifelong donors,” Mooney said. “We want to get our younger generation involved. If we don’t bring on more donors, we have to ask current donors to give more blood.”

He explained that first-time donors might be nervous. But a phlebotomist will talk them through the process.

Medical professionals also will check the iron levels, blood pressure and heart rates of donors.

“If you are a brand new donor, the process usually takes about an hour,” Mooney said. “They are good about getting you in and out. But they want to make sure you are OK after you have given blood.”

He explained that hospitals are smarter about using blood, but the need for it is still great.

“Every two seconds in the United States someone is using a blood product,” he said.

Unfortunately, only three people out of 100 give blood.

Mooney has donated almost nine gallons.

“It’s a pretty good feeling,” he said. “When I give a unit of blood, I get a note telling me where it went for use. You can feel good about helping people.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.