Meet three superheroes of the 2020 census effort

With state and federal governments in political feuds, others fill the void

Wisconsin Voices Census Director Matt Dannenberg AKA Captain Census
Wisconsin Voices Census Director Matt Dannenberg AKA Captain Census

Getting an accurate count of the population of the United States every decade, as is mandated in the U.S. Constitution, is not an easy process. 

At stake for the state are more than $675 billion in federal funding, the allocation of congressional seats and more — so expect to hear about the 2020 census a lot in the coming year. And this census comes with some new challenges, including being mired in political spats nationally, and in Wisconsin. 

Earlier this week, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order establishing a 2020 United States Census Complete Count Committee, to be appointed over the next several weeks. But funding Evers put in his executive budget for census outreach and collection was removed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Rep. David Crowley (D-Milwaukee) has introduced AB 326 to restore more than $1 million that was stripped from the budget for this purpose.

“We need to be about the census every day,” says Crowley. “When you are having a discussion about education, ask ‘Will you be counted? When you are talking about health care, ask, ‘Will you be counted?’ When you are talking about anything and everything, ask, ‘Will you be counted?’”

Rep. David Crowley
Rep. David Crowley

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 37 states have established a Complete Count Commission. (Wisconsin is among three other states beginning that process.) Just 17 have allocated funds for uses including outreach, address updates and collection. 

“The federal government is responsible for conducting a fair and accurate census every ten years, but that’s in jeopardy for 2020,” the CBPP report warns. “Years of inadequate and delayed federal funding and the Trump Administration’s failed efforts to add an untested citizenship question to the form threaten to reduce participation. Therefore, states should take steps now to help ensure a full and accurate census count.”

But with some state governments, including Wisconsin, battling over and politicizing the census, others are stepping into the void. Meet three census superheroes who are getting out the word and recruiting others to ensure every Wisconsinite gets counted in 2020.

Non profit super powers: Wisconsin Voices

In the current Wisconsin political climate, it might require a superhero to get the census done thoroughly. So if you see a dark-haired man in a cape with the letter “C” on his chest — that’s Captain Census, otherwise known by his citizen alter ego, Matt Dannenberg.

Wisconsin Voices Census Director Matt Dannenberg AKA Captain Census
Wisconsin Voices Census Director Matt Dannenberg AKA Captain Census

Dannenberg, the gregarious census director for Wisconsin Voices, admits he borrowed his superhero costume idea from Minnesota where an alderperson was dressing as Census Man. There has been a rivalry between the two states for which one gets higher voter participation, and in the last two census counts, according to the Applied Population Lab, Wisconsin has finished at #1, while Minnesota has been #2.

“This is vital for our schools, our roads, our hospitals — and also for political representation,” he says. “We need to reassure people that their data is safe and secure because there are a lot of reasons people have mistrust in the government in the current political climate.”

Wisconsin Voices focuses on engaging citizens in their democracy and voting, particularly among underrepresented groups, Dannenberg says “And we can have some fun doing it, too.” 

Dannenberg has taken on the role of organizing and mobilizing nonprofit groups to participate in the census count. He’s giving presentations to various civic and community groups from Boys & Girls Clubs to religious organizations to the Community Foundation and the Wisconsin Philanthropy Network.

“From those that are willing to share information in their newsletters to those that might organize a door-to-door campaign,” he adds. “We need trusted messengers in those communities where there are barriers. It’s a vital function of our democracy that everyone is counted, regardless of citizenship status, and the non-profit community is stepping in and filling in the gaps.”

According to the Pew Research Center survey, 84% of Americans were aware there is a census in 2020 and will either definitely or probably participate. But that leaves 16% that expressed hesitancy about responding, with higher shares found among black and Latinx adults, lower income families, rural residents and young people between the ages of 18 and 29.

Lower-income adults are classified as a “hard to count” population according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Evers said that is around 600,000 people in Wisconsin.

“For me as a Native American, it’s incredibly important to make sure our native population is counted,” adds Dannenberg. “In areas where there is low access to broadband, we are going to prioritize getting a canvasser to knock on those doors.”

The neighborhood hook-up: public libraries

The census will be online for the first time this year. While public libraries have always helped with disseminating information on civic matters from tax forms to voter registration, and have had census information in the past, the library role will expand this time.

“We’re the place that can help narrow the technology gap,” explains Cindy Fesemyer, the adult and community services consultant in Public Library Development with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “Libraries are people’s local hook-up for information. We have free wi-fi and computer terminals. We can also provide space for volunteers and paid staff to meet and organize.” 

Cindy Fesemyer is an adult and community services consultant in Public Library Development with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Cindy Fesemyer is an adult and community services consultant in Public Library Development with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Fesemyer has already been traveling and putting on webinars on how public libraries all across Wisconsin can help the state get a good count, including sharing a handy flyer on roles libraries can play to be a “Census Superstar.” (No mention of librarians donning capes, however.)

Schools also play a key role in getting information to parents and family members on the census. On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau kicked off its Statistics in Schools drive. Every school superintendent will receive a letter inviting them to join the program. 

“The Statistics in Schools program brings data and the 2020 Census into the classroom,” said Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, kicking off the program. This is a national call to action for every educator and student across the country. When students take home the message of how important the 2020 Census is, they help ensure that their household is counted.”

A U.S. Census Bureau public information officer said other regional partnership specialists include colleges and universities, community centers, faith-based groups, senior centers and nursing homes. She added that the office might have a partnership with Major League Baseball or the March Madness tournament next year. 

The lab coats: UW Extension & UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab 

While federal and state politicians work through political battles, local governments appear more eager to be involved in making sure their communities are counted. In fact, nearly 100 cities, villages, tribes, the Veterans Chamber of Commerce and other interest groups in Wisconsin have already formed Wisconsin Complete Count Committees.

UW Extension Demographic Specialist Dan Veroff with UW-Madison Applied Population Lab. Photo courtesy of APL.
UW Extension Demographic Specialist Dan Veroff with UW-Madison Applied Population Lab. Photo courtesy of APL.

Dan Veroff is a demographic specialist for the Applied Population Lab (APL) at the UW-Madison and UW-Extension who supports planning and programming in counties and communities. 

“Usually around this time of the decade, I’m going around doing presentations,” says Veroff. “We have an official role with the U.S. Census Bureau — it’s not funded but we do it for the public good, in partnership with the state.” 

Recently he made presentations on census involvement to the Wisconsin Counties Association and at a meeting of Wisconsin municipal clerks. Local communities receive much of their funding based on information obtained in the census, including such state funding as shared revenue, which is based on population counts. He notes that often grant funding is based on census information as well.

Veroff also works extensively with census data after it is gathered. In partnership with the Legislative Technology Services Bureau, he helps local governments with local redistricting for county supervisory districts and municipal aldermanic districts. 

APL also utilizes census data extensively in its research. 

“It’s really critical data to fit into analysis on something that is place based,” Veroff says. “We repackage the data to help us see on trends on migration, dimensions of population growth or loss, poverty, health and aging … for any group thinking about plans for the future, land-use planning, capital plans.” For example, he says, such data is accessed frequently for use in community and regional development, allocating local government services and emergency management.

Given his frequent work with census data, Wisconsin Examiner asked Veroff to take out his crystal ball and offer a few predictions of what trends Wisconsin might see in the 2020 data.

Crystal ball reflecting landscape scene
Does it look like I have a crystal ball by Keith Hall
2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

“I would guess the aging population will be one really important piece out of the next census results,” he predicts. “Counties that were already old will get much older. Counties that were young will be creeping up.”

“I think we are going to see even more of a large increase in the Latino population in Wisconsin. My crystal ball says the Latino population will be the largest non-white population, outpacing the African-American population.” He will be watching to see if rural population continues to decline, particularly among school-age children that might cause school closings, or if Latinos moving into rural communities to work might contribute to a reversal of that trend.

And he expects to see a lot of growth in “ex-urban” areas — communities in between the suburbs and the rural areas. “This is where a lot of the population redistribution may happen.” That also will mean growth in populations working in Minneapolis and Chicago but moving into Wisconsin.

Will there be fewer Wisconsinites, costing the state representation or dollars? Veroff doesn’t think so. “I expect trends to continue with moderate to small population growth. Not robust, but we won’t lose people.”