The 2020 census could fetch more money and redraw political lines in Blaine County—but the challenges of counting people in a county that is equal parts rural and resort stand in the way.
On Monday, former District 26 legislator Wendy Jaquet, a governor-appointed co-chair of the State Complete Count Committee, inaugurated a local branch to aid in tallying everyone living in Blaine County on April 1, 2020.
It’s a huge undertaking, and it will have to be done on a shoestring. While the Boise City Council committed something like $100,000 to back Ada County efforts, right now Blaine’s new committee is an unfunded dozen people representing county government, nonprofits and hard-to-reach populations.
The latter are a focus of Idaho’s effort for the upcoming decennial count, and each person has a significant impact on the state and local coffers. Idaho derives almost $2.44 billion in federal dollars through census-derived programs, according to a study by The George Washington University, around $1,473 per capita.
“That’s something everyone can relate to,” Jaquet said.
That is, if they find out about it. In 2010, 58 percent of the mailers sent to Blaine County residents were returned to the Census Bureau, Jaquet said. The bureau won’t send official forms to post office boxes, which may have pushed that number down. And, for 2020, it is ushering more people online, which may help.
To Bellevue City Councilwoman Kathryn Goldman, the census is worth more than money, and such low participation fails its broader purpose.
“It’s meant to show us who’s living in this community,” said Goldman, who joined the committee. “This count is who we are.”
In her hometown, like most of the valley, that community is skewing more Latino, Spanish-speaking and foreign-born. Among those groups, distrust of the federal government—and skepticism around its use of personal information—runs high. A bitter battle over the Trump administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the pamphlet—ultimately nixed from the final form—hasn’t helped. Jaquet and others on the committee expect those residents to be among the hardest to reach come April.
“They’re still not clear if that question is on there or not,” said Herbert Romero, a Hailey community organizer who volunteered for the census group. “The trust is not there—not in the climate we’re in, not in the climate we’re entering. The message now is that the government is not for us.”
The information gets batched and used for statistics. The penalty for a census employee scraping up that information for any other purpose runs up to five years in prison, with a $250,000 fine.
While Jaquet said the information cannot be personalized—that is, used to identify any one individual—the questions can feel personal. It asks for a name, an age and a telephone number for the Census Bureau to follow up on incomplete forms. And, it asks for specifics on both race and ethnicity, down to country of origin.
“Cold turkey, asking that question? It’s like asking someone for their credit card information,” Romero said. “We have to emphasize that it’s safe, and confidential. That there are benefits. Tu cuentas—you count.”
Committee member Carlos Meza, a school social worker and board member for The Hunger Coalition, found the question jarring, too.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of persuasion to get those answers,” he said.
The Census Bureau is hiring thousands of people to do it. (Go to census.gov/jobs to learn more.) Low unemployment is straining that effort, Jaquet said, and there are never enough bilingual candidates.
Blaine County’s Complete Count Committee hopes to supplement that effort in the coming months by enlisting other partners in the community. It’ll meet next on Thursday, Jan. 9, at 4 p.m. in the old County Courthouse—ideally, with more than 12 chairs full.
“There are enough leaders out there doing their own thing—they’ll champion this,” Romero said. “But we’ll have to get them together.”