Rudy Gonzales, executive director of Servicios de la Raza, talks during a strategy meeting last month at his Denver office


Critics say a new state program that allocates millions of dollars to stop an undercount in the 2020 census is demonstrating that old definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Rudy Gonzales is one of those critics. He heads Servicios de la Raza, a human services nonprofit that was one of 101 applicants hoping to be awarded a piece of a $6 million state-backed grant that funds efforts to reach hard-to-count communities come census day this April.

But Gonzales, and many other community-based organizations, felt “disappointed” by the funding outcomes that were announced Nov. 1 by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which oversaw the application process.

Much of the grant money — about 40% — went into the pockets of government-related entities, which many community organization leaders think conflicts with the intent of the program. Critics point to the census in 2010, when government agencies were charged with reaching hard-to-count populations, and an undercount occurred in the state. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 16,000 children under 5 were missed in Colorado that year.

Gonzales’ group had requested $2.65 million and received less than a tenth of it, about $250,000.

Using that money to fund local government efforts means one thing for many hard-to-count populations, Gonzales said: “People aren’t going to open doors. They’re not going to engage. They’re not going to come out.”

Gonzales and several other nonprofit leaders said that fear and distrust in communities of color are heightened now more than ever because of fears instilled by the Trump administration, including his push to add a citizenship question to the census, which was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

The 2020 Census Outreach Grant Program was created in May through a bill backed by Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Jefferson, and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Adams.

About half the nation’s states have appropriated funding for 2020 census outreach efforts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Just five states — Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas — have taken no action to establish a complete count committee, whether through legislation or executive orders.

Tipper’s legislation

freed up $6 million to be dispersed by DOLA and a nonpartisan, Legislature-appointed committee, but the requests for funding was more than three times what was expected.

“I was actually surprised at the amount — it was almost $19 million — so you see tremendous need, or interest, in drawing down funds to support census efforts,” Tipper said in an interview with Colorado Politics.

Tipper’s bill was created in the wake of major cuts to federal funding for the run-up to the 2020 census, which means states with high stakes, such as Colorado — which is projected to gain an extra congressional seat after 2020 — needed to pick up the slack if they want an accurate count.

The legislation focused on directing funds toward efforts to reach hard-to-count populations, including children under age 5, minorities, communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities, non-English speakers, rural Coloradans, the elderly, LGBTQ communities and people experiencing homelessness.

But Tipper’s not sure that’s what happened with her bill.

“When I look at the award list,” she said, “my preference would have been to see more community organizations that have really solid ties to hard-to-count communities awarded the grant monies.”

She also took notice of how many cities and counties received funding.

“One reservation I have is that we know that government is not the most trusted messenger for census outreach,” she said. “In hindsight, perhaps in the legislation we could have done a better job emphasizing the community connection.”

Differing visions

A Colorado Politics analysis found that 45% of grantees were government-related entities, which made up about a third of all applicants. More than three-fourths of the governmental bodies that applied received funding, with a median award of roughly $54,000.

Collectively, the agencies received about 40% of the $6 million grant and more than two-thirds of the funding they requested.

Community-based groups and other nongovernmental organizations made up nearly two-thirds of applicants. About half of them received a grant at a median amount of about $62,000.

Together, the NGOs were awarded roughly 48% of what they asked for.

Awards ranged from about $457,000, the sum granted to Metropolitan State University of Denver, to $1,000 given to the Rampart Library District.

“The committee was very thoughtful and went through every application” to figure out where the most outreach was needed and which organizations, based on their application, could provide “the best outreach to hit all of the hard-to-count communities,” said Natriece Bryant, DOLA’s deputy executive director and chairwoman of the state’s Complete Count Committee.

The thought process behind awarding local governments, she said, was that many of them not only included in their application how they were going to accomplish outreach and education efforts in hard-to-count communities, but also listed as sub-recipients the nonprofits they planned to partner with.

However, more than 70% of governmental grantees did not declare sub-recipients in their application, a Colorado Politics analysis found.

“We respect that (DOLA) has a hard job trying to set aside limited funding with so many applications,” said Harry Budisidharta, the CEO of the Asian Pacific Development Center, a nonprofit supporting the Asian American Pacific Islander community. “But we believe that the criteria they used is actually not in the spirit of the legislation.”

His organization was listed as a sub-recipient in the application of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, which received none of the $1.8 million it requested.

The funding outcomes, he said, “were made by people that don’t really know the communities’ needs and are using mental shortcuts to make decisions.”

The grant committee was appointed in June and consists of five members, one of whom is appointed by the secretary of state. The speaker of the House of Representatives, the Senate president, and the minority leaders of the House and Senate appoint the other four members.

Sitting on the panel were Chairwoman Cecelia Espenoza, a former counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice; Denise Whinnen, director of programs for the Gill Foundation; former Secretary of State Scott Gessler; Danielle Radovich Piper, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter; and Craig Steiner, a conservative writer and political activist.

The numbers game

Guiding the funding decisions, at least in part, was a scoring system that assigned points based on certain criteria. Program staff awarded 10 points to groups that articulated a capacity for outreach and community engagement. Another 10 points were given for identifying sub-recipients as part of the plan.

The committee completed their own separate scoring. Thirty points were allotted to applicants that clearly described how funds would be used to increase self-response rates in hard-to-count communities. An additional 30 points were awarded if detailed information was provided on the size, geographical area and diversity of the area of focus. Another 20 points were added if a specific “target community” was identified.

Applicant scores were negatively impacted if their proposed work contradicted the Census Bureau’s best practices for outreach, such as incorporating door-to-door canvassing, helping people complete the census form or paying for their participation.

“Folks who apply for this award really need to be ready to hit the ground running,” said Alison Williams Helm, DOLA’s director of financial assistance, during a committee meeting. The grant award offer is valid for seven months, meaning “this is not a capacity-building grant; this is for people who already have the ability to take the money and run.”

Nevertheless, the seven grantees that failed to score higher than 60 points each still received at least 60% of the funds they applied for, with an average of about 82%.

Adams County was the highest-scoring applicant, at nearly 88 points, and received the second-largest award of $420,000, or about 60% of what was requested.

Servicios de la Raza scored only eight points below Adams County, but received 9% of what Gonzales’ team applied for.

The City of Englewood, which scored second lowest at about 37 points, received 68% of its funding, about $15,000.

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition scored 77.5 and received no funding toward its $1.8 million request.

“We asked for quite a substantial amount of money, but we are closest to community, closest to the ground and trusted,” said Nicole Melaku, CIRC’s executive director. “What I see on this list is not the kind of representation of the folks who have their finger on the pulse of community and that level of trust and engagement already built.”

Several organizations felt like there wasn’t enough thought given to groups that serve similar populations, yet have different capacities, partners and approaches.

Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP’s Colorado, Montana and Wyoming conference, said she, too, was “very surprised” her organization received no funding. “I went back and forth trying to make sense of it … but it didn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me.”

The state conference received a score of 63.5 and applied for $85,000.

Most of the funding decisions were made unanimously, with the exception of less than 10 votes.

The funding review committee’s recommendations were then handed over to DOLA Executive Director Rick Garcia, who made decisions to award applications not only based on the committee and program staff’s input, but also by looking at hard-to-count areas across the state and identifying any remaining gaps, DOLA’s Bryant said.

All grantees are required to attend a Census 101 training as part of the grant program. Any unspent grant funds must be returned to DOLA by June 30, 2020, and the first of two progress reports must be filed by Dec. 1, 2020.

“This is going to be a learning experience for us,” Tipper said. “There are some takeaways here and opportunities for us to really make sure we get this right.”

‘Critical’ importance

The decennial census, which begins in the spring of 2020, determines how much funding a state receives and distributes when it comes to government resources, such as education, health care and transportation. The numbers it gathers also help draw congressional and state legislative district maps and determine how many members of Congress each state gets.

In fiscal year 2016, Colorado received more than $13 billion through 55 federal spending programs that were guided by data from the 2010 census, according to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

Just in Denver, the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that about 25% of households did not respond to the 2010 census.

For that reason, the Census Bureau is in the process of hiring thousands of workers across Colorado and is offering a competitive salary and flexible work schedules, said agency spokeswoman Laurie Cipriano.

The pay falls between $13 and $20.50 an hour to become a census taker or take on administrative or clerical jobs.

Those workers will partner with organizations such as the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which received $56,000 through the census grant program — about 95% of what it requested.

The homeless coalition will partner with census workers to find and count the estimated 33,000 people experiencing homelessness across the state, said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the coalition.

“It can be really scary sometimes for people to be approached by what they perceive to be a government worker with a clipboard,” she said. “We think that making sure we do some of that education up-front … and working with the folks who are actually going to be engaging with them will make that much less scary and hopefully more encouraging.”

Another population facing challenges is the LGBTQ community, said Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. His group, along with others serving LGBTQ people, did not receive any funding from the grant program.

One Colorado scored 60 points and applied for $200,000. Ramos said the group did not receive any feedback on the proposal and are still unclear why they weren’t awarded funding.

“Really being in the community was what we brought to the table as part of the census outreach efforts,” Ramos said. “But the reality is, even without funding, the work still needs to get done.”

The 2020 census will ask about same-sex relationships, which some demographers have said will produce data that can better inform public policy affecting LGBTQ communities.

As of now, there is no reliable national data about how many LGBTQ people live in the United States. But the Census Bureau estimates there are nearly 22,000 same-sex households in Colorado, according to the latest existing data.

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