Cities and Libraries Partner to Achieve a Complete Census Count – How We’re Doing it in Kansas City

August 12, 2020 - (5 min read)

With $1.5 trillion in federal funding at stake and vulnerable populations at high risk of being undercounted again in the 2020 Census, community leaders in Kansas City know we have to work together for a complete count to ensure proper funding distribution, fair government representation, and appropriate, data-informed school and voting district designations for the next 10 years. Census results are essential, too, in informing strategic thinking in government and business.

We started this effort in 2019 with the Mid-America Regional Council – a bi-state planning agency encompassing nine counties and 119 separate city governments; they led the way with essential support from the Health Forward Foundation and the REACH Healthcare Foundation. Adopting an all-hands-on-deck approach, we are determined to overcome such expected hurdles as lapses in engagement, concerns about security in providing personal information, and gaps in computer and/or internet access that deny opportunities to respond online. And we are responding to the new challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our citizenry is understandably shaken by employment insecurity, financial pressures, and, far too often, a struggle to meet basic food, housing, healthcare, education, and other needs.

We are sharing the importance of this census, the security of information that is submitted, and the power of an accurate population count. It can close opportunity gaps in high-risk communities and enhance the ability to bring community centers, grocery stores, hospitals, and improved infrastructure and services to the places where they’re needed most. With accurate data, we can understand challenges and effectively address them.

And so, we are working as a committed community, banding together even as we function separately or stay socially distanced.

We don’t dwell on what we may lose because of the barriers we face; we’re focused on what we can gain with innovation and collaboration. You’ll find 2020 Census bookmarks in the materials you pick up at the Kansas City Public Library, Census door hangers (in both English and Spanish) in areas with low self-response rates, and Census information on billboards and buses. You can see the city of Kansas City, the Library, and an array of organizations tackle digital inequity, ramping up efforts – through the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion – to expand digital access and encourage online Census responses.

While the Library and other community gathering places are temporarily closed or access is limited during the pandemic, we are meeting members of our community where they are. You’ll see us at work during food distribution events with Urban League of Greater Kansas City and Harvesters at Guadalupe Centers and Mattie Rhodes locations and at the Library’s Pop-In at the Park events (in partnership with Kansas City Public Schools, Harvesters, and the city’s parks and recreation department). We’re in faith communities. The Library also has a strong partnership with Swope Health that shows up in drive-through COVID-19 testing at Library locations and Library representation at Swope Health Central to share information about the 2020 Census and voter registration. We shared Census information at a press conference explaining the urgency of self-response, and continue to share in social media posts and videos, in webinars with community partners, and in media interviews.

NLC’s Cities Count census program equips local leaders with the tools, knowledge, and technical assistance needed to achieve a fair and accurate count. NLC has created a digital toolkit for customizable census materials, hosts a twice-monthly webinar series on census and voting topics, and has deployed $1.6 million in grant funding to cities and non-profits to support get-out-the-count efforts to historically undercounted communities. This cohort of grantees funds GOTC activities in about 80 cities, including outreach efforts from eight public libraries.

Kansas City’s Complete Count Committee relies on the National League of Cities’ Municipal Action Guide and earned the NLC’s Census Rapid Response Grant. Our City Council is actively engaged with residents, faith-based organizations, sororities, fraternities and community centers throughout the 3rd and 5th City Council Districts with this grant funding. These districts include the City’s largest Hard to Count populations.

We’re talking about the impact of the 2020 Census on funding. On representation. On planning. Put all of that together, and we’re talking about civic engagement and access to power.

Engagement and empowerment are fundamental to who we are in Kansas City, which extends beyond our work with the 2020 Census. That’s why the Kansas City Public Library works closely with the Kansas City Election Board to make sure we have trained deputy registrars working at library locations and why it partners, too, with the Election Board, the League of Women of Greater Kansas City, and the NAACP on voter information and registration drives. It is why the Election Board shares where to find notaries public in our community and why the Library now offers notary public services. If there is a barrier to civic engagement, such as a notary requirement for mail-in ballots or a lack of resources or information for the Census self-response option, Kansas City will help our community overcome it.

Although we believe Kansas City is special, we know we’re not unique. Across the country, cities and libraries often partner like this – in efforts related to the 2020 Census, voter assistance, COVID-19 response and recovery, and many other community priorities.

We love our community, and we’re determined to prove it with our commitment to civic engagement and a complete count. Because in Kansas City – as in every city – everyone should know they count.

About the Authors:

Richard Usher is Kansas City, Missouri’s Assistant City Manager, the leader of the Complete Count Committee, and a champion of digital equity and Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

John Herron is the Executive Director of the Kansas City Public Library. He is committed to advancing digital literacy and continuing the Library’s role as the heart of Kansas City life, learning, and culture.