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Ground zero for the census

On a mountaintop overlooking the Rogue Valley, Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett has the perfect vantage for her team to develop a vision to ensure every Oregonian gets counted in the 2020 census.

“This is the first time a statewide effort has been run from this valley,” said Tervalon-Garrett, manager of We Count Oregon, an organization that will reach out to hard-to-count groups for the census, which the U.S. Constitution requires every 10 years.

The count will start March 12, and for the first time people will be able to fill out a form online (at 2020census.gov). After the counts starts, attempts will be made through May to contact people who have submitted the form.

Not only is the statewide effort being run out of Jackson County, it’s being led by minorities and other groups that have historically been difficult to reach.

“We have people of color leading the statewide effort,” said Tervalon-Garrett, who is also founder and president of Dancing Hearts Consulting LLC. “I was so honored to be asked.”

But the challenge is to reach out to about one-quarter of the state’s population.

“We have about 1 million hard-to-count people,” said Tervalon-Garrett, who is black and lives in a rural area outside of Ashland.

Some households don’t report everyone living under the same roof, or people who are couch-surfing might be overlooked. Some rural residents might be suspicious of government employees and filling out government forms. Still others, particularly immigrants, might be fearful of talking to a government employee.

As a result, her organization will use a number of tools for outreach, including social media, phone engagement and having a staff that can speak 15 languages.

The state has a lot to gain from an accurate census count.

For every person tallied, about $3,200 in taxes flows back to Oregon from the federal government — money that goes to schools, health care and transportation.

The statistics gleaned from the census are used by business and government leaders to project trends, including estimating how many people will be eligible for Medicare and Social Security. Businesses also use the statistics to determine whether they should move to an area.

Oregon stands to gain another congressional district based on population growth over the past 10 years. Oregon has five congressional districts, but once the census is approved in March 2021, it is expected to have six.

The state has set aside $9.5 million to educate and promote the census. Oregon legislators earmarked $7.5 million to spread awareness of the census effort, and philanthropic organizations have contributed another $2 million.

The focus of We Count Oregon will be to educate and support segments of the population that are typically undercounted, including children, Native Americans, immigrants, minorities, non-English speakers, the disabled, the LGBTQ community and families living in rural communities.

According to a Portland State University study, areas of Jackson County where it’s difficult to get a good census count include west Medford to Central Point, and north of Delta Waters Road to White City. Most of rural north Jackson County from Eagle Point to beyond Prospect will also need additional outreach.

Most of the county has a high risk of an undercount of children younger than 5, according to a census map. A portion of northwest Medford has a very high risk of an undercount of children.

A swath of Ashland surrounding Southern Oregon University, where students live, is also a difficult place to get an accurate count.

Reservation land is a big target for census education, both to the north in Douglas County and to the east in Klamath County.

One of the most difficult areas in the state to get a good count is around the Warm Springs Reservation in Eastern Oregon.

For the outreach effort, both the U.S. Census Bureau and We Count Oregon will hire temporary, part-time workers who will canvass the county. The Census Bureau pays $18 an hour in Jackson County and is looking for 800 applicants, with veterans receiving preferential treatment. We Count Oregon pays $17. For more information, see 2020census.gov/jobs or wecountoregon.com.

Tervalon-Garrett said her group will hire 188 people who will man phone banks, send out text alerts and go out into the community to remind people to get counted.

Misty Slater, media specialist in Oregon for the U.S. Census Bureau, said this is the first time people can fill out the census form online, starting after March 12.

“It is so much easier,” Slater said. “We’re making it as accessible as possible.”

People still have the option of filling out a paper form or calling the Census Bureau. A mailer will hit Jackson County next month explaining the options in more detail.

Slater said some households don’t have an internet connection, so a census worker will sometimes knock on a door as a reminder. The sooner you get the count filled out and sent in, the less chance someone will come to your door.

Slater said the Census Bureau will provide information in 13 of the most common languages spoken in the U.S.

Slater said the census data are woven into many aspects of American life, but she said an accurate count is important for communities to make sure they are getting their fair share of federal dollars.

While some people might worry about privacy issues, the Census Bureau releases only statistical data — not personal information.

She said undocumented immigrants are entitled to be counted, and none of the information is shared with immigration or law enforcement.

“Census employees must take an oath for life not to divulge any personal information,” she said. “We want to safeguard people’s privacy. None of these answers can ever be used against them.”

Slater said the Census Bureau supports local and state efforts to get the word out about the census.

“They’re going to know their residents better than we know our residents,” she said.

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said legislators have gotten a rundown on the work for the census in Oregon, and she plans to offer any help she can for We Count Oregon.

Marsh said she recently participated in the annual homeless count on the Greenway and got a firsthand view of how difficult it is to reach out to some members of the community.

She’s also championed efforts to get broadband to rural areas, where 10-20% of Oregonians have difficulty getting on the internet.

Without a good connection, these rural Oregonians would have a difficult time filling out the online census count, she said.

She said an accurate census count helps the state as a whole receive a number of benefits, including for schools, roads and health care.

“We’re likely going to get a sixth congressional district as a result of this census,” Marsh said. “People need to get ready and understand how critical it is.”

Marsh said state and private philanthropic institutions have put money into getting the word out because an accurate count is important.

“We’re going to be driving the effort statewide from this little corner of Oregon,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneEsperanza Tervalon-Garrett, manager of We Count Oregon, Wednesday at her ranch on Dead Indian Memorial Road. We Count Oregon is an organization that will reach out to hard-to-count groups for the census.