Flagstaff's Community Census Team embraces the future
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Flagstaff's Community Census Team embraces the future

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Lizzie Chimiugak, right, gets a hug from her granddaughter Janet Lawrence on Monday at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. Chimiugak, 90, becaume the first person counted in the 2020 U.S. Census on Tuesday.

Flagstaff’s Community Census Team hosted a Get Census Educated event Thursday morning at the Aquaplex. The meeting allowed community members to voice concerns, ask questions and share opinions with other attendees, including Census employees and city officials.

Greg Webb, event coordinator for Flagstaff’s Complete Count Committee, which operates under the U.S. Census Bureau, discussed the importance of demographic statistics and collection.

Webb explained that the Census strives to survey every person in the United States and its associated territories, regardless of factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity or age. Ultimately, Census statistics are used to prepare and adapt for the future, which makes accurate data collection imperative.

“Everyone who is in the United States counts in the Census, and that, I think, is a key message,” Webb said. “There are groups who feel excluded from society, and we want to be clear to those groups that the Census Bureau doesn’t feel that way — they are a part of our society.”

Inaccurate or underrepresented data collection also diminishes the likelihood of funding, development or equal opportunity. Sara Dechter, comprehensive planning manager for the City of Flagstaff, detailed how Census-generated funding can directly impact both the city and county.

For example, Flagstaff City Council approved a Fourth Street bridge replacement in September 2019, which will double the number of lanes and lessen traffic congestion. This project’s funding could be influenced by Census statistics, Dechter said, because of the benefit-to-cost ratio. If more people live in the Flagstaff area and use the Fourth Street bridge — as Census data could prove — then the benefit aspect of the project would gain significance, subsequently making the cost more worthwhile. In this scenario, Census data pertinently connects to local funding.

Dechter also described how demographic data can benefit the homeless population. She said many shelters rely on estimates of the number of people served, which the Census helps to quantify and record. This situation demonstrates how direct services to people in need are influenced by reputable data collection.

“The accuracy of the data can really affect funding,” Dechter said. “This is another way to make sure the funding we need is available in Flagstaff and Coconino County.”

Similarly, the Census also leverages national finances. Every decade, certain funds are allocated throughout the country, and population density and distribution can alter these allotments. Webb said housing grants, school lunches and highway maintenance funds are among those aligned with population statistics.

“There’s 55 federal programs that in some way or another, 2020 Census data will determine funding for during the next 10 years,” Webb said.

Census statistics also govern the House of Representatives, Webb added. The 435 elected members of the House are determined by each state’s population, subsequently adding, subtracting or keeping the number of representatives per state each decade. More specifically, Arizona’s current appropriation of nine representatives could change based on the upcoming results of the 2020 Census. However, this political allotment depends on accurate Census data within and between states.

After discussing the applicability of Census surveying, Webb addressed some common fears associated with data collection. One stigma, he explained, is the lack of individual protection and privacy granted with sharing personal details.

In contrast, Census data is strongly secured because of a variety of mechanisms. It is guarded through encryption and guaranteed by law, including Title 13, which punishes confidentiality breaches with up to five years in prison and maximum fines of $250,000.

“As much safety as you can have in the modern world, this data has,” Webb said. “The Census Bureau is not there to use that data for anything other than statistical purposes.”

Although Title 13 safeguards private data, the American population is also required to participate in Census surveying and collection. Webb outlined the timeline associated with this obligation.

On March 12, the Census internet collection server opens for public usage, and in April, early nonresponse follow-up officially begins — mostly for the student demographic. For the general public, nonresponse follow-up usually occurs in May, and data collection formally closes July 31. From there, Census analysts and statisticians will examine the results until Dec. 31, when final apportionment counts are delivered to the president.

During this timeframe, most people complete Census surveys for themselves and their families. However, separate living facilities may supply demographic information for all their residents, eliminating the need for individual participation and completion. This technique is often used for the dormitories at universities, assisted living facilities or prisons, Dechter said.

Toward the end of Thursday’s meeting, Webb considered the importance of collecting accurate demographic data at NAU. The Census can influence factors such as public transportation, road quality, and campus development for both current and future students. Furthermore, this data often serves as a helpful source for university coursework and research.

“Even if someone’s graduating this spring, we want them to think about the fact that there’s freshmen coming in next year,” Webb said. “If the government thinks that there’s not that many people here, then that’s going to affect future students’ experiences.”

As the Census approaches, more public outreach and communication is planned. Another Get Census Educated event is scheduled for Feb. 8 from 9-11 a.m. at the Aquaplex, and additional resources are available online.

“We have national, state and local campaigns,” Dechter said, “but some people just want the chance to sit around the table and ask questions. We wanted to provide that opportunity.”

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