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Census count in full swing with rising Grand Rapids turnout

Grand Rapids census turnout above national average so far, with more work to do in neighborhoods at risk of being undercounted.
Division Ave. N in downtown Grand Rapids.

Division Ave. N in downtown Grand Rapids. /Ann-Marie Jurek

Looking for more 2020 census info?

More info about Grand Rapids' 2020 census effort can be found at, and the U.S. effort as a whole at

Poster promoting census participation in the Creston neighborhood.

Poster promoting census participation in the Creston neighborhood. /Kymie Spring

Three months into the once-a-decade effort to get American residents counted, Grand Rapids turnout is beating the national average and on track to beat its own final turnout 10 years before.

66 percent of Grand Rapids households already have self-responded to the census, and those who haven’t responded yet can do so through October 31,” said Lou Canfield, the City of Grand Rapids’ Development Center Manager.

Of Grand Rapids households that’ve already self-responded, 55 percent have done so online. Completing the census online is a new option this year, and one that’s proving useful.

“When you consider that Grand Rapids’ self-response rate for the entire 2010 census was 70 percent, we’re doing pretty well,” Canfield continued.


Pandemic causes adjustments

Including all of the online outreach by community organizations to get residents counted, the internet in general is proving valuable for 2020 census turnout – especially with a pandemic keeping face-to-face interactions at a minimum.

As coronavirus cases began spiking across the U.S. in March, the U.S. Census Bureau had to decide how to move forward with getting American residents counted while protecting their health and safety. Among the decisions made were an extension of the self-response phase from July 31 to October 31, postponing census taker operations, and partially suspending field office operations.

Changes at the national level have coincided with local changes. Gone since mid-March are in-person outreach events organized by the city’s Census Hubs, which aimed to educate historically-undercounted neighborhoods on the importance of getting counted. Gone, too, for the most part, are the city’s Census Assistance Centers (CACs), which were to provide space and access to a computer with internet for residents to complete their census questionnaires.

We've had to cancel a number of events due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Fran Dalton, a community organizer for the Garfield Parks Neighborhoods Association (GPNA). The GPNA is one of city's 18 Census Hubs, administered by Heart of West Michigan United Way. The GPNA's had to do some reevaluating.

“Social distancing is mandating a rethinking of how we can best keep the importance of the 2020 census process in our neighbor's focus,” Dalton said. “To this end, we have used digital billboards, yard signs, and [pubic service announcements] that we have developed locally. Our social media outreach continues as well.”

Like the GPNA, all Census Hubs have accommodated to the pandemic, with hopes that they’re still be able to reach those who haven’t understood the census’ value or how the privacy of their answers are protected.

Whether educating fellow neighbors face-to-face or through digital and print media, the communicated benefits of getting an accurate count are the same: An accurate distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding to community resources such as schools, hospitals, and roads; determining the number of congressional seats for each state; redrawing state and congressional legislative districts.

Every Grand Rapids neighborhood, or tract, however, has its own needs, priorities, and concerns. Without the trust-building that can come with getting census questions answered in-person by community organizers or census takers also calling their neighborhoods home, some residents may be apt to overlook the value of getting themselves counted.

Kymie Spring, a neighborhood organizer for the Creston Neighborhood Association (CNA), believes nothing can beat in-person interaction when it comes to helping one’s neighbors learn about matters as impactful as the census count.

I’ve done organizing for a long time, and that is really the most effective,” said Spring. “Direct face-to-face contact is the best way to interface with folks on any topic.”

The inability for Census Hubs, CACs, and door-to-door census takers to operate as they intended so far has caused hurdles, but not ones insurmountable. Evident through Grand Rapids’ above-average self-response rate so far, relative to the U.S., and a closing gap between current turnout and total 2010 turnout, at least some adjustments to census operations are working.

Continuing to be watched by organizers and city officials is how neighborhoods at risk of being undercounted are faring. Disparities persist: Grand Rapids tract 23, on the city’s northeast side, has a 79.2 percent self-response rate so far, compared to tract 26’s 45.8 percent. Tract 26, on city’s southwest side, has a larger minority demographic.


Empowering neighborhoods continues

The Hispanic Center of West Michigan (HCWM), another Census Hub, is keenly aware of the risk of a census undercount. Many from the Latinx community are apprehensive about sharing their information in light of earlier Trump administration attempts to include a citizenship status question in the census – which never materialized.

“It is tough. Most community Latinx members live in fear of sharing personal information,” said Daniela Rojas-Cortés, the HCWM’s Fund Development and Communications Manager.

Reassuring and educating the community on questionnaire privacy is a priority for the HCWM. They share with Latinx residents that their answers are used only to produce statistics. Bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Census Bureau can’t release any identifiable information about participants, their homes, or their businesses, even to law enforcement agencies. Violating Title 13 is a federal crime, punishable by prison time and/or a fine of up to $250,000.

While the HCWM can’t share these facts at outreach events or as a fully-operable CAC, it’s been able to get the word out in-person during its donations assistance related to the pandemic.

“So far we have been able to continue to do that during our food and good distributions since COVID-19 began,” Rojas-Cortés continued. “That’s some 1,000 plus families that we have been able to reach.”

The Grand Rapids Urban League has been able to get out census facts to the African American-dominant neighborhoods it works with through pandemic-related assistance as well. Through its in-person distributions of food and face coverings, the GRUL has handed out census flyers and related material.

For residents needing help completing their census questionnaires, organizations like the HCWM and GRUL are looking forward to being as available as possible, as soon as possible.

Said Rojas-Cortés: “It is still our hope now, with the census extension, to be able to welcome the community to our building, so residents can have access to not only laptops, but to also have the ability to ask questions from volunteers to successfully complete the questionnaire.”

As the situation stands, the HCWM may not have to wait too long. The coronavirus growth rate continues to flatten in Michigan and much of the U.S. Responding to improvements, the Census Bureau initiated its phased restart of some field operations, with Michigan’s involvement on the horizon.


Looking ahead

Census taker’s door-to-door work is tentatively planned to return by mid-August, according to what the City of Grand Rapids’ Lou Canfield knows so far. For neighborhood outreach events and CAC locations’ full return of face-to-face support, organizers are continuing to keep an eye on pandemic developments and guidelines. It’s a wait-and-see game.

In the meantime, nothing stops most residents yet to participate in this year’s census from doing so now: the 10-minute census questionnaire can be completed any time online, by phone, or by mail.

Many community organizers are keen to point out that 10 minutes spent getting one’s household counted results in $18,000 per household member going back to community resources such as schools, hospitals, and roads over the next decade.

For every person that’s counted, we’re going to get $18,000 back to our community,” said the CNA’s Kymie Spring. “And that’s a big number.”

With the 2010 census reporting a Grand Rapids population of 188,040, and 2020’s expected to top 200,000 if all are counted, $18,000 per person adds up.

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