An $18K Door Knock? Lawmakers Canvass to Raise City’s Census Response Rate

Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) advise volunteers on how to knock on doors to ask residents to fill out the 2020 census. Photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

In the middle of the rain on Saturday morning, a group of volunteers and state lawmakers gathered in Southeast Baltimore to knock on doors and ask residents, mostly immigrant families, to fill out the 2020 Census. The Trump Administration had attempted to end the census a month earlier than the scheduled date of Oct. 31, making this week possibly the last time Baltimore City could get an accurate head-count until the next census, which is ten years from now.

The group assembled in Baltimore Highlands, a neighborhood with many Spanish speaking households, a number of which have never participated in government programs or forms like the census. The census response rate here is 35%, said Del. Robbyn Lewis (D), which is well below the city’s overall response rate of 56%.

“We are going to knock on every single door,” Lewis, one of three delegates representing the neighborhood in the General Assembly, told the group of twenty-some volunteers. “Why? Because everybody counts. This is an existential moment of absolute crisis, if we don’t get our people counted as quickly as we can, our city is in trouble, our community is in trouble.”

“And our federal government hasn’t made it any easier, but we are pushing back,” said Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who also represents the neighborhood.

This once-a-decade effort to quantify where people live will shape the city’s political and economic future. The final census count will directly affect Baltimoreans’ daily lives, as it determines how much federal funding comes into the city, as well as the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

Each person counted will bring about $18,000 federal dollars back to Baltimore City, Lewis said. That is money that could be used for schools, early childhood programs, health care, small business support and road repairs. Often times the communities that need the most resources, like Baltimore Highlands, are the ones that are most likely to be not counted.

Despite some people claiming that knocking on doors during a pandemic is a “bad look,” Del. Lewis thinks more is at stake. “Do you know what’s a bad look? Baltimore City failing to get counted again. Do you know what’s a bad look? Us getting gerrymandered out of existence. Do you know what’s a bad look? Failing to get every federal dollar that we deserve. We send money to the federal government, we must get our resources back,” she said.

Last Thursday, Judge Lucy H. Koh of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California prevented the 2020 census from ending a month early, which means that census counting can continue through the end of October.

“We originally heard that the decision would come down two weeks ago,” Lewis said. “We’ve been on pins and needles this whole time.”

However, the Trump administration said they would file an appeal to block the injunction, leaving confusion as to what the actual deadline is. On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced a “target date” of Oct. 5, next Monday, to stop the count.

Baltimore City as a whole is changing demographically, but for Baltimore Highlands in particular, there are many more immigrant families than there were ten years ago, when the last census was taken, Lewis said. Federal funding for more English as a second language programs, work force supports and affordable housing are all critical for the success of this neighborhood, so it is important to get residents counted, Lewis said.

In 2010, the 46th district, which includes Federal Hill and Locust Point, was about 6% Latino, 25% African American and the rest white, but it is going to look very different this time, Lewis said. “We need those numbers so that we can adjust the formula to really serve the people who are here.”

Last year, the Trump administration sought to include a question about citizenship in the census, which was struck down in the courts, but the fear still remains in people’s minds, Lewis said. Since the census does not capture any personal information, it is safe for undocumented and other vulnerable families to fill it out.

Still, many lack an understanding of how the data will be used and how their communities will benefit from being counted. Canvassing can help reach families who are either new Americans, undocumented residents or immigrants who are naturally cautious of government forms.

Groups of Spanish-speaking volunteers walked along Noble Street, Highland Avenue and Fayette Street, knocking on almost 300 doors. By the afternoon, a total of 28 households filled out the census.

Sean Burns, who lives in downtown Baltimore, has been canvassing in the City for the past month. “Baltimore City definitely needs the revenue, to increase public services for the constituents and just to check in and see what their needs are,” he said.

At the very least, door-knocking will show residents that “someone gives at hoot about them in this terrible moment and maybe build that bridge of engagement, so that next time we need to work together on something, we won’t have a bridge so far to cross,” Lewis said.

Several residents also informed canvassers of their social needs. One was experiencing chest pain and swollen ankles, but was afraid to go to the emergency room. Another was seeking help with residency papers.

“We have a lot of social needs on this block,” Lewis observed.

There is plenty of help available, but a lot of fear in accessing those resources, Lewis said. This has been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which allows officials to deny permanent legal status from immigrants seeking public assistance.

These canvassing efforts usually increase the response rate by 1%, which may seem like a small number, but those are tens and thousands of dollars in federal funding that the City was otherwise not going to get, said Austin Davis, the Census 2020 Project Manager in Baltimore City.

Given the curveball of COVID-19, the goal is to reach Baltimore City’s 2010 census response rate, which was 59%, Davis said. Maryland currently has a self-response rate of 70%.

“This is an emergency,” Lewis said. “Every person is worth $18,000 of federal money. That’s our money. That’s the money we need to keep our streets clean, to pay our sanitation workers, to feed the kids at school, to pay ESL teachers and pay for afterschool programs.”

“How can we not get counted?”

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Elizabeth Shwe
Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.