Hawaii doesn’t get as much federal money as it could for Medicaid and other key programs because relatively few people respond to the U.S. Census. But as the 2020 census looms, the state and local Native Hawaiian organizations are making an unprecedented effort to change that.

“Each person who is undercounted is $2,600 less per year (in federal funding) that our state receives,” says Joe Kuhio Lewis, head of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

The census impacts Medicaid and Medicare funding, food stamps, school lunches and a slew of other federal programs. It’s also something nonprofits like CNHA rely upon to justify grant money.

The state of Hawaii allocated $750,000 for census outreach and has issued a request for proposal for a $650,000 contract. The state is one of several that is co-sponsoring census outreach for the first time after concerns that President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census could discourage respondents.

U.S. Census Sample Mail Form 2020
Hawaii organizations want to assure that as many people as possible are counted in the 2020 census. Getty Images/iStockphoto

CNHA solicited foundation funding and is spending even more — about $800,000, including offering $200,000 in grants and hiring a staff member exclusively to work on encouraging Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders to fill out the census. The group even plans to get Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winning musicians to create a music video, and make an advertisement featuring Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

CNHA’s effort in conjunction with the major Native Hawaiian trusts, including the Bishop Estate, The Queen’s Medical Center and Liliʻuokalani Trust is part of an effort to ensure resources are flowing specifically to Native Hawaiians, Lewis says.

“I’m part Chinese, I’m part Portuguese … but when I check the census I check Hawaiian,” Lewis said. One of his goals is to ensure that people like him are “recognizing Native Hawaiian as their race so that we have better representation.”

“If you have a greater number of Hawaiians that are reflected through the census, that’s more political credibility, it’s more mana … power and influence,” he adds.

Neighbor Islands Lag

The nonprofit’s work is part of a broader national and local effort to gear up for the U.S. census. The federal agency is in the midst of a hiring spree — the “largest peacetime mobilization” in the county, says Sharen Nakashima, one of eight census partnership specialists in Hawaii.

In Hawaii, Nakashima and her colleagues have been coordinating outreach, checking addresses and reaching out to local community organizations and governments to make sure they’re mobilized for a big awareness campaign scheduled to kick off in January.

State researcher Eugene Tian says Hawaii’s population is difficult to count because it has the largest proportion among the states of non-English speaking people. The state also has a large foreign-born population and 23% have multiple races compared with about 3% nationally.

The state also has a large homeless community and many multiple-family households, either several generations or different families living in large homes or extra units on the same lot.

The challenge is even greater on the neighbor islands. Fewer people on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island responded to the census in 2010 compared with 2000, Lewis said.

Local counties are still getting organized. Kauai County created a committee to assure as many people are counted as possible. It plans to meet for the first time later this month. Hawaii County doesn’t yet have a plan to create a complete count committee but does plan to do outreach.

“I don’t see it as you’ve given up your rights as a political member of the Kingdom of Hawaii if you answer the census.” — Joe Kuhio Lewis,  Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

Nakashima says she and her colleagues have been flying to neighbor islands for outreach. Two specialists are based on Maui and Hawaii Island, respectively.

“We’re going to make sure that big or small, you’re going to be counted,” she said. “By you not participating, that impacts school lunches, everything.”

‘Political Muscularity’

Lewis says counting Native Hawaiians in Hawaii is particularly important as many move to the mainland. Counting every Hawaiian in Hawaii ensures that federal dollars for Native Hawaiian-specific programs stay in the islands, he says.

But it’s not easy. Some Native Hawaiians don’t trust the government and others even reject U.S. citizenship. Lewis says his group is enlisting leaders in the Hawaiian independence movement to counteract that.

“I don’t see it as you’ve given up your rights as a political member of the Kingdom of Hawaii if you answer the census,” he said.

Instead, it’s about “political muscularity.” “We have to all survive in this current framework. We need to advocate for whatever we believe.”

The CNHA’s effort also extends to other Pacific Islanders, something Lewis says is important to also help ensure more federal funding flows to Hawaii. But it’s also about strengthening ties between the communities, which have often been splintered by resentment and discrimination.

“I think there’s a real opportunity here to uplift our fellow Pacific Islanders because there is no other agency that has the capacity to step up and support them,” Lewis said. “If Hawaiians could figure out how to work together with Pacific Islander communities, that only strengthens the voice.”

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