Carl Lavender, chief equity officer of the Foundation for a Healthy St Petersburg, Stephanie Owens, public policy strategist and expert
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
The 2020 U.S. Census is still underway – and with just over half of Floridians having completed it, community stakeholders and organizations are sharing the dire need for residents who haven’t to “act now.”
On Saturday, July 18, Carl Lavender, chief equity officer of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, was joined by public policy strategist and expert Stephanie Owens to discuss the state of the 2020 Census on the WTMP radio program “Equity Now.”
Owens leads Dolphin Strategies, a public affairs and advocacy firm, and has more than 20 years in public service under her belt. She was an appointee of both President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton, holding senior official positions in the White House and the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Commerce. Through Dolphin, she develops strategies for engagement and coalition building for public policy and grassroots campaigns.
Owens’ passion for service is guided by “a mission to connect government and public policies to the people that we intend to serve.” Her intention was sparked during childhood. She recalled watching the National Guard in front of her school and looking out her window to see “Detroit burning in the 60s.”
She said the challenges she confronts in her work stem from racist policies. “Our nation has never quite resolved our issues with slavery and racism,” she stated. “It’s very difficult to move equitable conditions forward when you fail to acknowledge historical discrimination and activities of the past.”
Owens said the focus of her work is “to ensure that the people get what our tax dollars are paying for,” and to make sure that elected leaders are engaging with constituents, so they know “what our interests are.”
According to Owens, a whopping $44 billion in federal funding came into Florida based on numbers from the census taken 10 years ago. Federal dollars impacted by the census count impacts everything: public transportation, Head Start and early childhood education, health care for the homeless, school lunch and affordable housing programs, community development grants, fire department assistance grants, and even federal highway projects.
“If you are not counting each and every one of our residents, that federal funding is at risk,” Owens remarked.
She also said that the census count determines each state’s representation in Congress and impacts political districts’ boundaries. “Depending on our local population, that count could result in redrawing political boundaries. It revises how we elect our representatives — from the U.S. House right down to our local city council.”
Lavender summarized that “the census is money” – dollars that trickle down from the federal government to our states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods. He noted that, while residents may look at neighborhoods, highways, and other services, and wonder where the money is to fix them, it can sometimes be explained by poor census response.
“So, if you’re wondering why we don’t have the money,” he reiterated, “It might be because we haven’t participated in the census the way we should.”
Owens said that currently, Pinellas has a 62 percent completion rate, not nearly enough – but above the state average of 59.2 percent completion.
She said that every resident receives census information in various ways — a letter or postcard, or maybe a text or a phone call. “And, at some point in the next couple of months, if you haven’t responded to the census, you’re going to receive a knock on the door to tell you to respond.”
Lavender asked whether a lack of trust for the government in Black and Latino communities may cause people to choose not to respond to the census. Owens noted that campaigns developed by organizations, including FHSP, the Urban League, and the NAACP continue to help dispel myths and false narratives around the census.
“The census is private,” Owens stressed. “The Census Bureau is required by law to protect your information, which is covered under the Federal Cyber Security Enhancement Act of 2015.”
She said people could be confident that the information they provide is going to a true and credible government source for true and credible reasons: to support a community. She noted that it takes just 10 minutes.
Owens added that it’s important for combined family homes to add all the people who are living under one roof on their census data. To Lavender’s query regarding whether returning citizens should also complete the census or those who may wonder about applying if they live in public housing, Owens responded enthusiastically.
“Absolutely. The goal is to count every person in the United States every ten years. This is the basis of the count – to make sure that there is an equitable distribution of federal resources across the state. And one of the main ways is for people to identify themselves from the community that they are residing in.”
The 2020 Census count has been extended until Oct. 31 because of COVID-19, but Owens said not to delay: “Do it today.”