Ottawa County

Why counting young people is critical to success of 2020 census

There are many reasons people don’t fill out their census forms, but there’s billions of reasons they should, says Patrick Cisler, executive director of the Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance.

The LNA has been working with the national Get Out the Count campaign for two years, telling people why it is important that they be counted in the 2020 U.S. Census. Cisler says. The decennial census helps the federal government decide how to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars of funding each year.

The effort to “get out the count” has been ongoing for the past two years.

“It’s been building and building and building,” Cisler says, and then COVID-19 hit. Everything came to a halt. 

Reaching the public

However, the LNA and others have been able to reach the public through a coordinated effort and mini-grants to local agencies, targeting the “hard to count” — including younger adults, those experiencing homelessness, minorities, and undocumented immigrants.

The Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance has a network of more than 150 nonprofits, most of which work with those “hard to count” populations.

“There’s a great fear in that community about the census,” Cisler says. “It’s a legitimate fear, so it’s hard to get the message across without a trusted source.”

Distrust plays in

There is no citizenship question on the 2020 Census, but the Trump administration raised the possibility and people may not feel safe, thinking it is still a part of the questionnaire. 

By law, the U.S. Census Bureau is required to use the information it gathers to produce statistics and cannot share responses publicly.

There’s still a certain amount of distrust of what the government will do with the information people give, Cisler says.

Young adults have never completed the form the federal government sends out every 10 years. They don’t always recognize the civic responsibility of filling out a form, but the federal government uses answers to measure population and determine federal funding distribution to local governments, Cisler says.

“It’s easy to ignore,” he says. “Right now, we have a very low count in Allendale, and that’s because of Grand Valley. But the issue we ran into this year was, just when colleges were going to have their students do this, they were sent away.”

Responding made simple

For the first time, the American public can respond to the census by phone, mail, and online.

“The most important (reason to be counted) is funding. People do not realize how much funding — I mean billions of dollars — flows into a community because of the census,” he says.

Even in a community such as West Michigan, known for its philanthropy, the amount of money distributed here as a result of the census adds up.

$675 billion per year

The federal government uses the Census to determine how to distribute $675 billion every year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For the state of Michigan, that’s $1,800 per person, per year, according to the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

That means funding for everything from Medicaid and low-income housing to adoption assistance and roads.

Not everyone benefits from housing or health care programs, Cisler says, but we all do pay into those programs indirectly, and everyone lives in a community where people need those programs.

The census also determines the number of legislators in Congress. Michigan lost enough population in the 2010 Census to lose a congressional seat. 

To be counted, visit

Related: What’s at stake for Ottawa County with the census
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