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Setting Up Free Internet Around Georgia Ahead Of Primarily Online 2020 Census


The 2020 census will be the first U.S. head count to be conducted mostly online. Some groups worry that going digital could lead to undercounts in communities of color and rural areas. An organization in Georgia is spending the final months before the count trying to make sure those communities can connect to the Internet. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has that story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In Lumpkin, Ga., the yellow-trim doors of the local library have been closed to the public for more than a decade.

This was the front entrance to the library?

MARKUS TAYLOR: Yes. Yes, sir.

WANG: Markus Taylor works as an administrator for the local school district here in the southwestern edge of Georgia. He stands along a highway that cuts through Lumpkin and peers into the windows of what used to be a library.

I still see some books on top of the book returns.

TAYLOR: Well, you probably have some residue of a library...

WANG: But it's not a place with free Internet access the Census Bureau is hoping communities like this one can turn to for help. The bureau estimates that in this county, half of the homes do not have an Internet subscription either on a computer or mobile device. That's partly why homes in Lumpkin are among the 26% of households nationwide set to have paper forms mailed or hand-delivered to them early next year. Still, community leaders like Taylor are worried about what this town could lose out on if there is an undercount.

TAYLOR: Your number going to dictate how many teachers you're going to need, how many doctors you're going to need. It has a lot of ramification. And then at the end of the day, it bring dollars and cents into your community.

WANG: That's why a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta called Fair Count has been installing Internet hot spots in towns like Lumpkin. So far, the group has set up Wi-Fi in more than two dozen African Methodist Episcopal churches and other locations around Georgia. By March, it expects to have a total of 150 hot spots installed, and it plans to pay for Internet service through 2020.

Fair Count CEO Rebecca DeHart says she hopes this will help more people go online not just to fill out the census or apply for a census job.

REBECCA DEHART: Communities that are often very undercounted in the census are often the same communities that are sliced and diced up in redistricting or who have larger-than-normal amounts of people who aren't mobilized to vote.

WANG: The idea is to start by getting more people to understand how census numbers determine how voting districts are redrawn and the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets.

DeHart is a former executive director of Georgia's Democratic Party, and Fair Count was started by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost last year's race to be Georgia's governor. But DeHart insists Fair Count's work, which she says is funded mainly by foundations and private donors, is nonpartisan.

DEHART: We're not just counting people who have a particular political persuasion. We're counting everyone.

WANG: Fair Count is prioritizing outreach to groups the Census Bureau has undercounted in the past, including African Americans. For example, the bureau estimates the 2010 census overcounted white people, while undercounting more than 1 1/2 million black and Latinx residents. The bureau considers communities of color among the, quote, "hard to count."

DEHART: I don't really like that term because I believe that people inherently aren't hard to count. The systems that were created to count them aren't doing a good job.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three-fifths - that's all we were counted for.

WANG: Fair Count recently launched a campaign in Georgia called Black Men Count with a video that addresses census history before the Civil War, when an enslaved person was counted as just three-fifths of a free person.

ED REED: That resonates with, I think, a lot of people. They remember what that meant when they learned about it in history class.

WANG: Ed Reed is Fair Count's program director.

REED: But we have an opportunity to be counted and to show up. I mean, if we don't, then we're losing money. We're also losing power in terms of influence and representation.

WANG: That's the message Fair Count is trying to spread ahead of the mainly online census by installing Internet hot spots in places where people gather with trusted community leaders, like at this barbershop in Cuthbert, Ga., called Unique Images. It's owned by Frederick Cannon.

FREDERICK CANNON: This is what a barbershop is. It used to be to the point where you could go and get a tooth pulled or get a bandage or whatever. The barbershop was everything.

WANG: So why not get counted and get a job here, too?

CANNON: That sounds good. You know, it's a win-win situation.

WANG: Cannon says, in a town where some park outside the library to catch the Internet signal, offering free Wi-Fi at the barbershop could help beyond the 2020 census. Still, Raekwon Daniels, a barber at Unique Images, says it's going to take a lot of work to get more people to care about a count that Daniels sees as critical to his community's future.

Do you think your friends, people you know are thinking that way?

RAEKWON DANIELS: Probably right now, no, sir. But I'm going to make sure to get it in their head to do it.

WANG: Daniels says some people may treat the census like another election they can skip.

People think they can put it off, but...

DANIELS: They really can't.

WANG: The whole decade.

DANIELS: Yeah. You'll be old, might be gone - man, ain't no telling what might happen.

WANG: Apathy and distrust towards the government are two major barriers to getting people to take part in the census, especially among communities of color. Fair Count is trying to find ways to talk through people's concerns, says Jeanine Abrams McLean, Stacey Abrams' sister and Fair Count's vice president.

JEANINE ABRAMS MCLEAN: How many people fully trust that your data will be safe when you complete the census? I do because I know what they're doing. But I also know that there are lots of people who don't trust putting their information out for the government to have.

WANG: McLean recently led a training in Washington, D.C., for college students who are gathering data to build maps that show the digital divide in states beyond Georgia. McLean says Fair Count plans to use the maps to guide census outreach to communities of color across the country with the help of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Is there enough time to do this planning?

ABRAMS MCLEAN: There's never enough time, but we'll make it work. But no, I definitely think there's enough time. I knew coming into this that this was a massive effort that needed to be undertaken.

WANG: But the pressure is on, with the 2020 census fully underway in just over 100 days.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "BRONZES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.