Baltimore Community Leaders Work for Accurate Census Count

Howard Libit (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

While in Genesis, Abraham may have been given the seemingly impossible task of numbering all the stars in the sky, this year U.S. Census workers have their own rather daunting task.

Whereas census personnel in previous years would go door to door to take an accurate count, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a heavy impact on that approach, said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. Additionally, Libit said, the decision to end the census a month earlier than previously planned is also concerning.

States like Maryland receive federal spending based in part on the number of residents who live in that state, Libit said. That spending then trickles down to individual communities like Baltimore. And because a state’s total number of residents is officially determined by the census, the census has a direct impact on the federal support that Baltimore receives.

According to Libit, this includes “support for services for people with disabilities, services for job training, services for people in need, school lunches.”

Libit added that “a ton of services that affect the whole broader community also certainly impact the Jewish community; effect seniors, effect young people, effect families, effect people in need, no question.”

The importance of the census was echoed by Audra L. Harrison, media and partnership specialist with the United States Census Bureau for Maryland.

“The decennial census is critical to our communities,” Harrison stated. “Annually, the federal government allocates more than $675 billion based on census data. And these are programs for schools, hospitals, first responders, public health, roads, bridges, rural communities, our urban communities.

“[The] census affects our daily lives,” Harrison continued, “and so getting a full and accurate count of our communities is critical to ensure that they have the resources they need for the next 10 years.”

Libit named Jewish Community Services and CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. as two local organizations that receive federal aid depending on the results of the census.

Joan Grayson Cohen, the executive director of JCS, confirmed that her organization received federal dollars through intermediaries like Baltimore City, Baltimore County and the state of Maryland. This money is then used for purposes such as giving financial assistance to renters, providing personal care for Holocaust survivors and funding career center programs.

“Any dynamic change, especially if it’s undercounting, is going to have an impact on demonstrating the needs within our community,” Cohen said. In particular she mentioned state-funded clients who have disabilities, stating that if this demographic were to be undercounted by the census it “would have a tremendous impact on probably the most vulnerable clients.”

Meanwhile, Larry Schugam, CHAI’s senior director of community development, explained the work his group does to manage the Weinberg Place senior living community, as well as to provide seniors with age in place services, affordable housing for community members and community development programs for the area. Similarly to Cohen, Schugam stated that if the Baltimore area were to be undercounted, it would reduce the funding CHAI has available for “some of the areas we’re focused on strengthening, such as public schools, affordable housing and community development efforts. There’s really a synergy between the work we’re doing and the federal programs that support what we’re doing, either directly or indirectly.”

As such, the Baltimore Jewish Council has devoted significant resources to raising community awareness on the census and its importance, Libit said, promoting the census on social media, newsletters and on handouts given out at “food distribution points” like Fallstaff Elementary School and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Libit also praised the efforts of Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr., who, alongside volunteers, raised awareness about the census by knocking on people’s doors.

While Libit expressed gratitude over the ability for residents to fill out the census online, he remains concerned over the possibility of the Baltimore area being undercounted by the census. As such, he vowed that BJC would continue “promoting the census right up through the end of September, right up through the deadline.”

“It’s a big issue, we really need everyone to fill it out,” Libit said. “Not just in the Jewish community, but across all of the Baltimore region.”

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