There’s a lot riding on the once-a-decade head count being conducted by the federal government next year — breakfast and lunch for students living in poverty, housing assistance and money for roads and bridges, to name a few.
Norman Bristol Colon knows that how the federal government chooses to spend about $900 billion will depend on the ability of cities and towns to encourage residents to participate in the census. The more accurate the count, the more taxpayer money is returned to the community.
“This is a return on our investment. That’s the way we’re seeing it,” Bristol Colon said.
The 43-year-old Lancaster Township man serves as executive director of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission. Among the panel’s responsibilities is finding ways to reach hard-to-count populations and hard-to-enumerate areas.
A former mayoral hopeful who specializes in outreach to the Latino community, Bristol Colon founded First Thursday Latino, a popular monthly meetup and networking event, and led former Gov. Ed Rendell’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.
Here are a few takeaways from a recent interview with Bristol Colon.
Funds tied to the census
Federal funding is Bristol Colon’s most pressing argument for completing an accurate count in 2020. How much money are we talking? Precisely $2,093 per Pennsylvanian per year, or about $27 billion statewide, according to an average of the last 10 years of federal funding.
Bristol Colon said it was “unfortunate” the General Assembly didn’t authorize the governor’s request for $12.8 million — $1 per Pennsylvanian — to pay for efforts to make citizens aware of the census. The request mirrored those in other states. New Jersey approved $9 million to get the word out to its own 9 million residents.
The citizenship question
President Donald Trump’s administration failed to get its citizenship question on the 2020 census, but Bristol Colon said he believes “the damage has been done.”
Critics of the question said it was designed as a scare tactic so that undocumented immigrants and other minority communities wouldn’t be counted. Bristol Colon said there’s a chilling effect on U.S. citizens, too.
“I think that that created this fear mongering” in which people believe it’s going to be an “intrusion from the federal government,” he said.
He’s worried about all kinds of people opting not to answer the census. Some studies show rural residents have a lower response rate.
“Let’s put it plain and simple,” Bristol Colon said. “We must count every single individual in Pennsylvania … independently of ZIP codes, independently of rural, suburban or urban areas, and independently of whether they are U.S. citizens or not.”
The role of state agencies
The commission had to “shift gears” once it was clear the money wasn’t coming from the state, Bristol Colon said.
It will release a report in September that will lay out how every state agency will engage in the census-taking — from the Department of Aging informing the 3 million senior citizens it serves, to Pennsylvania State Police assistance.
“Some people will look and say, ‘What does the state police have to do with census?’ ” Bristol Colon said. “It has to do a lot (with it). We get federal funding for our roads and bridges, but also for law enforcement.”
It could even help with “great police-community relations” to have top state police officials telling the public to “make sure you’re counted on the census,” Bristol Colon said.
Holistic approach to Pa. head count
Bristol Colon said it’s also up to counties and local municipalities to take up outreach efforts.
Philadelphia has committed money for census work, and Bristol Colon describes the city as possibly being the most likely place in Pennsylvania where every person could be counted.
A network of other nonpartisan “complete-count commissions” have popped up in the Lehigh Valley, where there has been more population growth than elsewhere. Still, Bristol Colon urges rural areas to take up the same effort.
“It doesn’t matter if Philadelphia is doing such a great job in counting everyone — and they are,” he said. “If we have a great count in Philly but an undercount in Monroe County, it will still have an impact statewide. So that’s why we need everyone, everybody involved.”