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Milwaukee Lags As Wisconsin Ranks No. 2 In Census Response Rate

United States Census Bureau
The Census Bureau requires that census takers wear a mask while conducting their work. They will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health guidelines when they visit.

The 2020 Census has faced a lot of hurdles. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, widespread unrest, and economic turmoil, it was recently announced that the census will be ending all counting efforts a month early. 

The impact could be devastating for communities with low-response rates. Among other things, an inaccurate census count can lead to less federal aid and less political representation.

Overall, Wisconsin has a high response rate, second only to Minnesota. But Milwaukee is lagging behind the rest of the state. Luckily, there are local efforts to change that, including the work of Milwaukee’s Complete Count Committee

Bill Schmitt is a member of the committee, as well as the executive director of the United Methodist Children’s Services of Wisconsin. He says Milwaukee faces a number of challenges when it comes to getting the census to residents.

"To boil it down, there's probably larger populations of hard to count groups or what the Census refers to as hard to count populations. That's a lot of immigrants and recent immigrants, non-native English speakers, the homeless, or folks that are facing different types of barriers that make it difficult for them to engage with the census," says Schmitt. 

Southside Organizing Committee, a partner organization of Milwaukee’s Complete Count Committee, shifted its efforts to combat these hurdles since the pandemic began. Organizers have been calling, texting and reaching out on social media to make sure people know about and can get help filling out their census forms.

But not everyone can be reached digitally, so both Southside Organizing Committee and United Methodist got creative in how safely reaching people in person. 

Southside decided to continue their neighborhood clean-up project and in there contactless drop-offs of gloves and bags, they included census fliers. United Methodist has kept its food pantry open throughout the pandemic, using that as a safe and clean space for census takers to talk with patrons. 

Tammy Rivera, the executive director of the Southside Organizing Committee, has a message when she speaks with community members: "Being counted means political representation for the area and resources. That those resources translate to do we have enough school funds for your kids to go to school." 

Despite Milwaukee's lower numbers, Wisconsin is on pace to keep its eight seats in the House of Representatives while even No. 1 Minnesota is projected to lose one of its eight. But there are no guarantees, so Schmitt says, "we should do everything we can to make sure that every single person is counted."

The new deadline for filling out your census is Sept. 30. It can be done online, by phone, or via mail

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.