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Cleveland's Last-Place Census Response Rate Spurs Leaders To Action

Areas with low census response rates, in shades of orange, cluster in the City of Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. [U.S. Census Bureau]
A map shows Census response rates in the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.

With about two and half months left for people to return census forms, Cleveland has the lowest response rate among the nation’s largest cities.

Currently, just under 47 percent of city residents have completed their forms, putting Cleveland at 68th out of 68 cities with a population of 300,000 or more.

There a lot of reasons for the low response rate, including the cancellation of community events due to the coronavirus and lack of internet connectivity in some neighborhoods, said Nelson Beckford of the Cleveland Foundation, one of the funders of Complete Count Cleveland.

But one of the biggest challenges is the intensifying distrust of institutions in the era of Black Lives Matter, he said.

"Early in this process, we identified that one of the big barriers to the people completing the census is lack of trust with government," Beckford said. "How do you get people to say, 'Okay, I'm going to give the federal government my information about who is in my household?'"

Community distrust is a particular dilemma, he said, because neighborhoods where skepticism is highest may have the most to lose from an inaccurate or incomplete count.

"What's at stake is if we have less people in Cleveland, it becomes a less attractive city in terms of federal funding, private sector investments — it just goes on and on," Beckford said.

Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County Council Representative, also highlighted the issue of distrust in a June 24 virtual Town Hall meeting.

"People have been under the belief that this has been a mechanism to find people who are in delinquent situations," Brown said. "That is not the case. This is a tool that we utilize in the government arena to be able to disburse resources."

Solutions Sought

The low response rate has led to several different local initiatives meant to boost participation.

A volunteer drops off Census material in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood, where the response rate is below 40 percent. [OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates]

Complete Count Cleveland this week announced  a new round of small grants for nonprofits and awards for individuals to get the message out in their own neighborhoods.

The microgrants, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 each, are the third round of a program that has so far funded $153,000 in census outreach projects. Past grants have gone to support information dissemination at food pantries and neighborhood public art programs.

The individual awards will be given out as part of a contest called "Why We Count," where city residents are encouraged to post videos, photographs, stories or other artwork about why the Census matters. Winners will receive $500.

The idea of both programs is to get neighbors communicating with each other, rather than listening to institutional messages, said McKenzie Merriman, a consultant with The Cleveland Foundation.

Meanwhile, the City of Cleveland organized a census “blitz” earlier this week, where people could volunteer to hand out flyers in their neighborhoods. The effort attracted more than 100 volunteers.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.