Published December 1st, 2020 at 6:00 AM
There’s more than meets the eye in the hard-to-count areas of the Kansas City area, say local enumerators.
Although the Census Bureau made a concerted – and widely publicized – effort to count historically undercounted areas of the U.S., workers on the ground say getting an accurate headcount was unusually complicated this year.
“So we have an election, a pandemic, and (I’m) trying to capture data,” Laird Hensley said.
In September 2019, Flatland reported that Kansas City had 20 hard-to-count tracts, with one tract averaging 4,000 residents.
The number of people in a census tract plays a crucial role in shaping political representation and the allocation of resources. Census data influences how much federal money a state receives for things such as housing developments, community programs — think Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — and how many seats a state has in the House of Representatives.
With this year’s moving target of deadlines, a novel disease and political tension, Census workers faced great odds to snap an accurate picture of what Kansas City looks like and what monies we need.
Hensley, who is a first-time enumerator, was assigned to count households around Wyandotte County. She spoke to residents living in Rosedale, Armourdale, downtown Kansas City, Kansas, and went as far as the border of Leavenworth.
Wandering around neighborhoods going door to door with her federal phone, she considered her day successful when residents would crack open their doors so she could ask how many lived there. If they didn’t answer, she’d ask a neighbor.
“So how accurate is our data? I think it’s pretty darn accurate,” she said.
But she also noted the aftermath of COVID-19 on the families she saw along the way.
Kids were left home alone because the parents were likely essential workers. Groups of people squeezed in 600-square-foot spaces, which some folks would deem uninhabitable. She estimated surveying about 25 square miles of poverty.
These areas had been visibly undercounted a decade prior. In addition, enumerators are not allowed to go to homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters or encampments. These locations were counted by a separate staff in other operations between Sept. 3 – Sept. 28.
For example, Census geographer Craig Best says another group conducted The Enumeration of Transitory Locations to count people staying in campgrounds, RV parks, marinas, and hotels “if those people did not usually live elsewhere.” Counting people staying in domestic violence shelters also requires a different method.
“We treat the enumeration of domestic violence shelters with extreme sensitivity for obvious reasons,” Best said in an email. “Our personal visits to these sites are prearranged and conducted by a very select handful of staff.”
There were other complicating factors, too. From a logistical perspective, Census workers like Hensely were stuck in a game of “traffic lights.” The deadlines for data collection changed constantly.
After months of legal battles, the Trump administration was able to change the counting deadline, shortening the timeframe for the Census Bureau to collect their data by two weeks.
However, this was about more than the data for Hensley.
“It really has to do with the money in this neighborhood,” she said. “Where I live, Sharice Davids is our (representative). If we have more accurate numbers we have more Sharice Davids.”
Hensley surveyed neighborhoods that had large Latinx populations and a lot of the time, they were confused by the options she presented.
The section only included the “major groups” which were Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Ricans, according to the Census. There wasn’t a section for Latin Americans, so they were lumped under a sub-group, complicating things further. Most times, those who identified as Latin American opted for “other.”
“I was really baffled,” Hensely said, who encountered families in KCK who were Honduran or Peruvian. “I finally figured out (to ask), ‘What race do you identify most closely with?’”
Representation of racial and ethnic groups matters, said Aude Negrete, executive director of the Kansas Hispanic & Latino American Affairs Commission (KHLAAC). KHLAAC was one of the local groups in Kansas educating the public about the Census and its importance.
She knows because she’s seen a positive outcome firsthand.
Negrete’s friend, who is a Latina, ran for office as a direct result of Census results 20 years prior.
“Her district was created after the 2000 Census,” Negrete explained. “And it was because there was an influx of people moving into this Latino neighborhood. So we had her at the legislature. We get that representation.”
Beyond that, the KHLAAC has worked to educate people about the compounding effect the pandemic, misinformation and a lack of participation will have on communities who need basic, federally funded services.
“The federal money is for your roads and your emergency rooms and your fire station and your police stations,” Negrete said. “If there are 100 people in a town and only 20 answer the Census, we’re going to have fire stations for 20 people, even though they will have to continue serving 100.”
Still, local enumerators were turned away this year, sometimes by large religious signage or anti-government posters, and other times residents that didn’t open the door.
These households fall under the Census’ hard-to-count list.
Some people want to remain invisible. Others don’t trust the government, much less government workers in plain clothes coming to the door asking about how many people live in their household.
Hensely recounted a moment that illustrates another complication: the difficulty in counting refugee or asylee families in more rural areas of the metro.
“In KCK at 78th and Parallel, you’ll see this land. A lot of (Hmong) immigrants now farm on it… do entire flower markets,” Hensley said.
Oftentimes the adults didn’t speak English, she explained, so “it’s really common to have a child translate. I was using that but I had to make sure they were 15.”
For others who worked with the Census, this year revealed a need for better education about what the process looks like and what it impacts on a daily basis.
On a granular level, being counted means federal support by way of education, housing, food, protection and representation. So, a few enumerators asked, why do we only count every decade?
Hensley said it makes more sense to count every five years. Kids who weren’t born 10 years ago go uncounted. Teens who are now adults might go uncounted. And people who come to the U.S. to build a life might also go uncounted.
“A lot of the people I met were really, really cool,” she said. “A lot of them were what you hope the future is like. A lot of people believing what is not yet currently but what will be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article excluded information about how the Census Bureau counts people who stay at homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters or encampments. It has been updated to include a Census Bureau worker’s clarification about the process.