¿Puedes contar? ¡Cuentate!

“If you can count, count yourself.” It’s the motto of the Yakama Yakima El Censo 2020 coalition — a network of community organizations dedicated to making sure that everyone in the Yakima Valley is included in the 2020 census.

Representatives from nine groups gathered at the Northwest Community Education Center in Granger on Tuesday to discuss challenges and barriers to a complete count.

People particularly at risk of being undercounted include low-income residents and the homeless, communities of color and undocumented residents, said Faviola Lopez, the director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood, who opened Tuesday’s presentation.

One challenge is making sure people can access the online census form — a change from previous years’ mailed paper forms. Another is to counter fear that sharing information digitally could lead to problems later on, especially for those who aren’t U.S. citizens.

Getting a complete count

The census affects federal funding to communities. The federal government uses Census Bureau statistics to allocate more than $675 billion over a decade.

Washington state received $14 billion of federal funding from the 2010 census, which went to services such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 Housing choice vouchers, highways and more.

Laura Armstrong, the executive director of La Casa Hogar in Yakima, said many of those she works with question whether they should be counted in the census.

“People are confused about whether it’s for them,” Armstrong said. “Communities are so used to being excluded. Before we even got to the citizenship question, we had to talk about who was included in the census.”

Lopez emphasized that the census applies to everyone who lives in the United States — including noncitizen immigrants, refugees, children, those formerly incarcerated, and Native people on reservations.

Changes, challenges

Two things have the coalition concerned. The first is a possible question about citizenship. The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a legal challenge seeking to remove the question from the census form, with a decision expected this summer. During oral arguments last month, the court’s majority appeared ready to allow the question.

The Census Bureau states on its website that data is collected for record-keeping purposes only and is kept confidential. But Caty Padilla, the executive director of the Sunnyside-based nonprofit Nuestra Casa, said that the Trump administration has created a climate of fear and reluctance to share information with the government for many of the families her organization serves.

“All we can do is educate them,” Padilla said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Coalition members also said that the Census Bureau’s switch to an online form could be a problem for the Valley’s rural or homeless residents, who may not have access to the internet. Beyond that, there’s also a fear that online data shared with the Census Bureau could be hacked, Lopez said.


Countering fear

About 53 percent of the Valley’s population count as people of color, including communities with high percentages of Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

Lopez said she has the most success in discussions with the Latino community when she emphasizes that being counted is part of an individual’s civic and community duty. She also stresses that a complete count means more funding for programs, including local schools.

“It’s about $2,300 per person that is counted,” she said. “That really gets their eyes open.”

Getting through to people who mistrust the government can involve calling in a trusted acquaintance, such as a teacher, a doctor, or a faith or community leader.

“A lot of times our communities of color don’t trust the government, but they will trust the school principal or the person who helped them fill out their paperwork at the Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s Clinic,” she said.

Dori Peralta Baker, the Yakima Valley chairwoman of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition for Yakima County, said many new immigrants come from countries that were terrorized, where they were not given the right to vote.

“Rather than speak out, they hunker down and don’t make waves,” she said.

Baker said she has the most success when talking with Asian Americans to mention the impact of a complete count for families, rather than as something that is part of an individual’s civic duty.

Lopez said that distrust of the federal government in Native American communities often goes back in history to broken treaty rights. Speaking about the importance of the Census count for federal funding for health care, education and housing can be helpful, Lopez said.


Education and outreach

The question about filling out the census form and simply skipping the citizenship question came up at Tuesday’s meeting.

Lopez said that submitting incomplete census forms could result in a fine and that community organizations should not advocate skipping the question without also educating them about the possibility of the penalty.

Lorenzo Garza, the director of community engagement for the Sunnyside School District, said many of the district’s households have more than one family. Garza asked whether each family in a dwelling needs to fill out a separate census form.

Lopez said the census form is meant to apply to a household. If two separate families live in a house, only one form needs to be filled out. But that form should include a total count of all the people who live in the house, she said.

Mathew Tomaskin, a coalition member from the Yakama Nation, said he would like to see posters of local celebrities on the coalition’s 2020 Census outreach posters. Seeing trusted members of the community on the posters could encourage participation in the count, he said.

Baker said that her organization also is looking for ways to couple well-known people in the Valley with public service announcements about the census.


Growing membership

Baker said the coalition is looking for other community organizations to join committees that cover outreach and education, hiring, media and funding.

For more information, or to get involved, community organizations can contact YakamaYakimaCensus@gmail.com.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.