While most Idahoans still have nearly five months before they have to think about the 2020 Census, groups across the state have been laying the groundwork for a successful census count for months.

Hundreds of eastern Idaho residents have been meeting in Complete Count Committees since March, more than a year before the official Census Day of April 1, 2020. The committees are made up of local political, school, nonprofit and church officials, and serve as the local organizers for the U.S. Census Bureau to get the word out about the once-a-decade effort to count every person living in the United States.

The map of the committees recognized by the US Census Bureau lists 59 groups across Idaho and 12 committees based in eastern Idaho, ranging in size from the statewide effort led by Gov. Brad Little’s office to individual school districts. Marc Sunderland, the census partnership specialist for Idaho, has met with six county committees in eastern Idaho this year — Bannock, Bonneville, Fremont, Jefferson, Madison and Teton.

“The local committees really help get the word out at a grassroots level as well as being the local face. They are a tested voice and a trusted representative,” Sunderland said.

Most efforts to promote the Census will wait until the next year, but some committees have already started getting the word out. Bannock County had booths at the Kind Week Kick-Off in September and the Homeless Stand Down in October. The Idaho Falls city website will debut a section devoted to the census by the end of November.

The census questionnaire has less than a dozen questions, with no question about citizenship, and U.S. criminal code prevents census data that could identify an individual from being released to any business or federal organization outside the Census Bureau. But those few questions determine how seats are apportioned in the U.S. House of Representatives and how large amounts of state and federal funding will be provided.

“Our small business development centers are funded by that, the SNAP program is funded by that, the Pocatello regional transit system is funded by that,” said Logan McDougall, media chairman for the Bannock County Complete Count Committee.

The Census Bureau says that around $675 billion was distributed across the country every year since the previous population count was announced. A George Washington University study estimated that by 2017, that had expanded to $900 billion that was allocated by more than 300 federal agencies.

The money lost by people not responding to the census can add up quickly. Madison County’s committee leader Daniel Torres organized a study earlier this year to estimate how much money Rexburg had lost because of undercounting in the previous census. He estimated that the city had missed out on $7.5 million per year between federal and state programs and said that many Idaho cities have likely seen similar shortfalls.

“If you look at what the Census Bureau is saying, our population is (28,300) and what the student population is, it would mean our resident population has shrunk. And we don’t believe that is accurate,” Torres said.

Last month the university reported a total campus enrollment of 20,592 students for the fall semester.

Getting an accurate count means figuring out which groups are most likely to not be counted correctly. The Census Bureau’s main tool to identify those groups is the Response Outreach Area Mapper. The map uses data from another Census Bureau survey, the annual American Communities Survey, to calculate updated population numbers and provide a “low response score” for how many members of a census tract were not counted by the last Census.

College students have been one of the most difficult groups to count both in eastern Idaho and nationwide. The only two tracts in the region with an estimated non-response rate of over 30 percent were centered on student housing in Rexburg and Pocatello. Because the census is based on where people on the day it’s conducted, all those students should count toward the population of those two cities.

“We have held our fire on deploying information until January because a lot of that student population won’t be here until then,” Torres said.

Sunderland singled out the Latino population in eastern Idaho, and specifically Bonneville County, as another group at risk for being undercounted.

Jay Doman, director of Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership and member of the Bonneville County committee, said the committee was planning to rely on church leaders with large Hispanic congregations to get the word out locally.

“We felt that was going to have the greatest reach. Nobody is trusted more than your church leader, no matter what denomination of faith you have,” Doman said.

The only committee in eastern Idaho not led by a city or county government is run by the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. The entire Fort Hall Reservation, including the Native American tribes other than the Shoshone-Bannock and the non-native residents who live there, is considered a hard-to-reach population.

Denell Broncho worked on the committee for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe during the 2000 and 2010 census and is leading the effort for next year. She said the 2020 Census will be the first where most people will be able to answer the questions online, which could help increase participation but leaves many with concerns about their privacy.

“We live in the day of identity theft so someone might be reluctant to respond to a form, something online or answer the door to any person that comes to ask questions,” Broncho said.

The Idaho Community Foundation and the Northwest Area Foundation are providing $100,000 to nonprofits across the state who are involved with their local complete count committees and work with hard-to-count groups. Groups can submit funding requests to the foundation through Monday to receive between $1,000 to $15,000 for outreach efforts leading up to the census.

The Madison County committee is applying to fund an informational meeting aimed at migrant workers, who count for the census regardless of their citizenship. Foundation Engagement Officer Cara Walker said the group reached out to 80 organizations that serve groups at the beginning of November and that the foundation could plan a second round of funding if there was a high demand for it.

While local committees plan their outreach and identify the hard-to-count groups, the Census Bureau is recruiting workers to actually run the census. Sunderland said the bureau needed to fill hundreds of part-time positions in eastern Idaho, the majority of whom would be sent door-to-door next summer to speak with people who have not yet participated.

“We are hiring in basically every county in eastern Idaho, and we are trying to hire local,” Sunderland said.

Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.