ST. JOSEPH — Most Americans got a letter in the mail late last week asking them to log on to my2020census.gov to complete the 2020 Census.

“If you haven’t done it, do it now,” said Kathy Stady, Berrien County Census Hub coordinator. “This is too important to the county.”

The national census, completed every 10 years, determines funding for things like libraries, school lunches, road projects and health clinics.

Every person who completes the census, no matter your age, is worth about $1,800 a year to their community.

“It’s the way we get our fair share of the $675 billion of the federal money that comes out to communities,” Stady said. “When you vote, you’re voting about how those dollars are going to be spent or where. When you’re filling out the census, you’re bringing those dollars into the community so they can be used to benefit every resident.”

A census during a pandemic

Many people reading this have probably spent the last week social distancing and washing their hands a lot because of the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.

A pandemic is something the census can help with, according to Stady.

“Census data is used for emergency management planning, including hospital beds and staff, even decisions about how much medical equipment we need locally,” she said. “The epidemiologists use census data to calculate the impact of the virus on our local communities. We need each household in Berrien County to complete the census, so our future planning includes enough medical resources.”

Stady said this coronavirus emergency is a vivid example of the importance of completing the census.

“When the schools closed, suddenly school lunches, a census-based program, were at risk,” she said.

But this year, you can respond to the census without in-person contact by responding either online, by phone or by mail.

“We hope this national emergency spurs each household to take 10 minutes right now to complete their census by going to My2020Census.gov or calling 844-330-2020, or, for the local households who received the paper survey, they can complete and return it in the postage-paid envelope,” Stady said.

Making it accessible

Stady and Lisa Cripps-Downey, president of the Berrien Community Foundation, say there is absolutely no reason not to fill out the census for your household.

But, some may still struggle to complete it because of lack of phone or internet access, or a permanent address.

That’s where the Berrien Community Foundation comes in.

Cripps-Downey said she was at a conference last year where they talked about the census, how important it is, the fear of undercounting in our communities and what that could mean for our community.

“My original question was, who is the hub and how do I help? We didn’t have a hub, so just knowing what an important issue this is for our community, we decided to become that hub. We were lucky to bring Kathy on to take this project and move forward. It worked out very well,” she said.

Stady and the staff at the Berrien Community Foundation got to work on how it could bolster census participation for those hard to count people in the county.

With the foundation’s already established connections with area nonprofits, it decided to make grants available to them, with help from the Upton Foundation and Whirlpool Corp., to hold census events.

“The challenge has been trying to make sure we talk to as many people and as many groups as possible, as well as connecting with nonprofit organizations that have the trust of some of the hard to count populations so that we make sure that everybody knows just how important this is to our everyday life,” Cripps-Downey said.

An example of a population that is at risk for being undercounted are people who are couch surfing.

“There’s a significant population,” Cripps-Downey said. “You can go on to the census site and say that you don’t have a permanent residence and you can fill in where you anticipate you’re going to be, whether that’s it’s an intersection or a park. It’s wherever you call home.”

She said that applies to snowbirds who may only live in Michigan half of the year.

“We’re encouraging people to fill out the census for where your heart calls home. We hope that’s here,” Cripps-Downey said.

Cripps-Downey said the U.S. Census Bureau has also found that children are undercounted.

“Children count fully in the census. Every single one,” she said. “There can be confusion if a child lives with parents in separate households, who is going to count the child? We would encourage everyone to fill that out for your children. The census is going to come back and look at any duplication. It’s important that we get everybody to fill that out for anyone in your household.”

The nonprofits that got grants to put on census events have postponed their events until after the coronavirus emergency is lifted, but Stady said new dates will be posted at BeCountedBerrien.org.

Those events will have internet access available for people to come and complete their census.

Stady said once libraries are open again, they can also help people fill out their census.

“We want to knock down as many barriers as possible and make it easily accessible for everyone,” Cripps-Downey said.

What is at stake?

Those “hard to count people” account for about 30,000 people in Berrien County alone.

Cripps-Downey said if they aren’t counted, that’s about $44 million a year for 10 years that is lost.

“That’s a low estimate actually,” she said “That $44 million includes the top 16 census funded programs. When you include everything, we’re looking at over half a billion dollars over that 10-year period because each person who fills out the census is worth $1,800 per year for 10 years.”

Kim Gallagher with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) said an undercount of 10 percent in Berrien County would lose the Twin Cities Area Transportation Authority (TCATA) about $125,000 a year in funding.

TCATA uses those funds for Dial-A-Ride, along with other programs.

Gallagher said each Dial-A-Ride route costs about $250,000 a year to operate.

“That’s why it’s so important to get the word out to get the hard-to-count populations counted,” she said. “The people who are most vulnerable and in need are the ones who need public transportation and they are the heart of the county.”

In addition, Gallagher said the SWMPC uses census data for nearly all of its work.

“When we’re planning new transit routes we are looking at the demographic information to see how many people are within a five-minute walk of the stop, how many low-income residents are there, how many seniors are in the area, etc.,” she said.

Road projects require census data too.

Brandon Kovnat, a transportation planner with the SWMPC, said about 50 percent of state road funding comes from population data from the census. The rest is based on road miles in the area getting the funding.

He said in Berrien County, only three municipalities have their own additional road millage, so most road improvement projects are paid for with money based off the census.

It’s safe and confidential

Despite some attempts from the Trump administration, there is not a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

“There is still an uncertainty, but everyone needs to be counted,” Stady said. “All immigrants, documented, undocumented and green card holders. If you live here, you count.”

One of the biggest things Stady and Cripps-Downey want people to know is that the census is completely safe and confidential.

“It’s private by law and your individual information can not be shared with anyone,” Stady said. “Not any government entity, local police, a landlord, not with a bill collector. Anyone that you don’t want to know where you are or how many people live in your home, it can not be shared.”

Cripps-Downey said they’ve heard of people being nervous about saying how many people actually live in their home.

“If your landlord thinks you have four people living here, but you actually have seven people, you fill out the census for all seven. No one is going to inform anyone,” she said. “Filling out the census cannot be shared with any authority.”

Some other things of note

Stady and Cripps-Downey want to remind people that if you haven’t filled out the census by April 30, then a worker from the Census Bureau might come to your door to get you to complete it.

“There’s been some discussion about scams,” Stady said. “The Census Bureau will never ask for money, a credit card number or for social security numbers. They do not need any of that information. If someone asks you for that, we recommend you call your local law enforcement officers.”

But the census does ask for your phone number just in case there are any questions about your form.

For more information about the census, visit becountedberrien.org, or 2020census.gov.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman