Leaders in Houston County have formed a complete count committee to encourage participation in the 2020 census.

Leaders in Houston County have formed a complete count committee to encourage participation in the 2020 census. / GPB

With just under 100 days until Census Day, communities across Georgia are working to get the word out about the population count that happens every 10 years.

Billboards and digital advertisements hoping to encourage people to respond to the questionnaire will begin appearing throughout the state. A coalition of local government leaders in Middle Georgia are working together in hopes of increasing participation.

Few counties in that state have experienced the percentage of growth seen in Houston County. From 2010 to 2018 the number of people living in Houston increased by over 11%. Local leaders across the county say they expect that trend of growth to continue.

If expansion is reflected in census data, the county stands to gain more attention in the form of federal dollars to bolster economic development, educational assistance and funding for programs throughout the region.

These are the stakes that drew top elected officials in the cities, school board and county commissioner in Houston County together to form a regional complete count committee. Mayors from Warner Robins, Centerville and Perry teamed up with the head of the Houston County Board of Education and the Houston County Board of Commissioners to figure out the best way to leverage their resources for advertising and a unified strategy.

Approaches include identifying and including community partners to make sure targeted groups like the counties growing Hispanic population are hearing from trusted and familiar voices.

Spokesperson for the city of Warner Robins Mandy Stella said this is a key pillar of their committee’s plan.

“While we realize that people may not trust everything that we're saying, we know that someone that's in that room has a targeted group of people that trust them,” Stella said. “If we as part of our strategic marketing plan that we've got set in place, that if we're all disseminating the same information, the same verbiage, that we will be able to impact a larger group in our community.”

A region growing in diversity, the first marketing video to be released in the “Houston Counts 2020” intuitive aims to reflect the many faces in their community. The 2-minute video features a pastor, librarian, fire chief and an educator all delivering messages on why census participation is important.

Leveraging relationships with community partners that are plugged into disenfranchised communities also helps to build the trust needed to ensure residents will complete their census questionnaire.

There are concerns that thwarted efforts to include a question about citizenship will hurt participation rates. The proposal was denied by the Supreme Court in June 2019, meaning no questions regarding citizenship will be asked. But leaders are still working to get the word out to communities who may believe completing their form would put their safety in the country at risk.

“We do have a large Latino population in Houston County, and I think just with some of the federal issues with questions on the census form, there was already a little skepticism in filling out the census,” said Kate Hogan, Director of Economic Development for the City of Centerville. “And so, utilizing them in everything that we're doing, we're making sure we have Spanish messages to disseminate also is really important.”

It is not lost on the group that high census response rates in Houston County also serve to benefit all of Georgia. State results are important in determining how many representatives each state is allotted in the United States House of Representatives. And several programs that rely on population based federal funding are calculated by state, rather than county or city.

“In addition to economic development and the education aspect here, locally, statewide apportionment is a big reason to participate in the census, because we want as many folks from Georgia represented in Congress,” said Jacob Cox Houston County Board of Commissioners Community Planner.

Following the 2010 Census, Georgia was one of eight states that gained members in the House of Representatives, there were 10 states that lost seats.

Development and opportunity; these are the forces that drove leaders together in Houston county. Knowing what is on the line and how an act of civic participation will have lasting impacts on their communities over the next decade is what has made this a top priority. All they need now is to convince everyone else of what they already know.

“We want to make sure that people don't see this as another plan for the government to come in and oversee what they're doing,” said Stella. “But to see the importance of the census and how daily things that they do, things that impact their children, direct impacts for their community — how important the census is in being completed.”