Photos from the ALL IN FOR A BETTER HAWAII event at the Hawaii State Capitol on January 14, 2020, provided by Hawaii Community Foundation.

Dozens of organizations and hundreds of volunteers are collaborating on a project that will determine how much federal funding Hawaii and its nonprofits will receive over the next decade.

Their mission: To make sure that Hawaii is represented as completely and accurately as possible in the upcoming 2020 U.S. census.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake as states compete for a share of federal funds. The census counts the number of residents in each state, and failure to reach every resident can result in less funding.

The census also determines each state’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and that can change as populations shift. Hawaii has 2 congressional districts and 2 members of the House, and that is highly unlikely to change with the new census.

What can change is the amount of federal funding. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that undercounting Hawaii’s population by 1% could cost the state more than $40 million a year. Because the census is conducted every 10 years, the state could lose almost a half-billion dollars over the next decade for each percentage point that it is undercounted this year.

Calculating the impact of the census on federal funding is at best a complicated process. Not all federal funding is tied to census data, and it’s almost impossible to determine how much census-guided money ends up with the hundreds of nonprofits in Hawaii. By one estimate, about a third of federal funding is tied to the census count.

The George Washington University Institute of Public Policy has taken a shot at determining financial impact. It reports that in Fiscal Year 2017 Hawaii received almost $5.8 billion for federal spending programs guided by data from the 2010 census. That includes big-ticket spending programs such as Medicaid, transportation and housing that may or may not find their way to the not-for-profit community.

A brief history of the U.S. Census

It’s as old as our nation; it was mandated in Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and was first conducted in 1790. Its purpose is to count the number of U.S. residents – citizens and non-citizens – regardless of their resident status. An attempt by the Trump administration to add the question of legal residency was rejected and is not on the census form.

Information on individual forms is confidential. It cannot be shared with immigration and law enforcement agencies or used to determine eligibility for government benefits. It is not shared with local governments, neighbors or landlords. 

What happens next

Hawaii residents will receive census forms in mid-March, either in the mail or delivered to them. There will be one form per household, and the data will cover all residents of that household as of April 1st, regardless of whether they are members of the same family. Forms can be completed online, by phone, or mailed back to the Census Bureau.

The time needed to complete the form will depend on the number of people in the household. Each resident can self-determine his or her ethnicity or mix of ethnicities. This is especially important in Hawaii with its wide range and mix of ethnicities. 

This year marks the first time that residents can complete the form online. Many households will receive instructions on how to access the form, while others will receive the printed form.

Households that do not return forms will be contacted in person by trained and certified census workers. Only those trained and certified workers are allowed to help others fill out their forms.

The Census Bureau has plans in place to reach Hawaii residents with no mailing address, such as the homeless. People living in shelters will be counted on March 30th; those visiting soup kitchens will be counted on March 31st; and those living on the street or in encampments will be contacted on April 1st, according to the Los Angeles Regional Center, which oversees the Hawaii census.

I asked a Census Bureau representative about cyber security for the online responses.

“The Census Bureau has a team of cyber security experts who monitor and protect all agency technology around the clock,” she said. “Our cyber security meets the highest standards for protecting your information. From the moment we collect your responses our goal and legal obligation is to keep them safe.”

Outreach and promotion: How communities are coming together

The State of Hawaii has contracted with the Hawaii Community Foundation to promote the importance of the census and reach out to organizations and nonprofits. The HCF has been meeting with dozens of groups since last fall, especially in the rural areas of the Neighbor Islands, which are in the biggest danger of being undercounted.

Hawaii is not alone. Residents of rural areas on the U.S. Mainland also are the most likely to be undercounted, and they often are most likely to need the services paid for by federal funds.

I spoke with Robbie Ann Kane, HCF’s program director, and Michelle Kauhane, senior vice president of community grants and initiatives, about their outreach.

They said young adults and the elderly are the least likely to respond to the census, especially those with language problems and residents who are concerned about citizenship issues. Concerns remain despite the fact that the census will neither gather nor share information about undocumented residents. 

Kane and Kauhane say Hawaii’s nonprofits are playing a key role by preparing their clients for the upcoming census. They’re making sure their clients understand how the census works and the importance of filling out and returning the forms in a timely manner.

“We use nonprofit partners because they are the ones who can reach segments of the population who are hard to count,” Kauhane said.

Kane cited as an example Meals on Wheels drivers who have developed trust with their clients and are likely to be listened to.

I asked Kane and Kauhane what they have learned about the nonprofits through their involvement in the census.

“Our nonprofit partners are super passionate that we all get counted,” Kane said. “When we get together, there’s lots of energy in the room. They all have the same goal.”

“We see a reaffirmation of who our nonprofits serve and that what they do really matters,” Kauhane said. “They’re doing their part to ensure that it happens, and some of them don’t even receive federal funds. It’s inspiring.”

For more information, go to or contact Robbie Ann Kane at or contact Michelle Kauhane at

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at

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