Census advocates say a complete count could mean millions for Clayton County schools, infrastructure and health care. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Clayton looking at 2020 census as a turnaround agent for its future

While the call for census participation will ring throughout metro Atlanta over the next four months, nowhere will it be louder than in Clayton County.

The south metro home to the world’s busiest airport, Clayton State University and an entire museum built around “Gone With the Wind” is pushing hard to boost its census response rates in 2020 — getting everybody counted — because of what’s at stake.

About 60 percent of Clayton residents live in hard-to-reach communities — one of the highest such populations in the state, according to a Georgia census profile. And as the census form has moved online, about one-fifth of county residents don’t have access to the internet in their homes or are limited to dial-up connections.

That could mean millions lost from the more than $47 billion in federal dollars expected to be tied to the census that could go to the county for prenatal care, programs in schools or road and highway improvements. It also could stymie the millions in federal dollars Clayton is hoping to attract to bring commuter trains to the community.

About 71.3% of the county’s households mailed back their 2010 census questionnaire, according to the state analysis.

“Our estimate is that we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 people or a little over that here,” Clayton Commissioner DeMont Davis said. “We have to look at that and say what does it mean in terms of dollars and cents and what we could possibly lose out on if we don’t have an accurate count.”

Clayton is not alone in its push to get its count up to bring home federal funds. Across the metro area, communities in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb are rolling out initiatives to increase their counts, especially in hard-to-reach communities and minority communities. As in Clayton, leaders in Duluth, Clarkston and Atlanta are fanning out to basketball games, festivals, community meetings and libraries to spread the word about the April 1 count.

Groups such as Black Men Count and the Center for Pan Asian Community Services are drilling down even further, going after specific sections of the population that historically have been undercounted in the census.

But Clayton’s needs stand out because of some of the county’s financial challenges. About 17 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and home ownership lags that of other metro Atlanta communities, with as much as one-third of housing being rented. The recent loss of $9 million annually in fuel taxes from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also has sent the school system struggling to make up the funds.

“We have taken about 14 or so census tract areas that have been identified as hard-to-reach and made those the focal point of our outreach,” said Brecca Johnson, a co-chairwoman of Clayton’s Complete Count Committee and Clayton’s assistant director of community development.

An incomplete count could also hurt Clayton’s efforts to strengthen its struggling retail base. Businesses often use census numbers to determine where to locate stores, and an undercount could miss incomes critical to persuading companies to expand, leaders said.

“Anecdotally, the Filipino community has been trying to get a Filipino fast-food chain called Jollibee to come to Georgia, but they weren’t successful in getting them here because Jollibee looked at census numbers and said, ‘You know what, there are not enough Filipinos in Georgia,’ ” said Paulene Barnes, an advocacy manager at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services. “It shows how important the census is.”

To improve its chances of getting everyone counted in Clayton, the county and leaders from each of its cities have banded together to push the importance of the census to residents, Johnson said. In addition to an overall complete-count committee for the county, several of the cities have formed their own, to double down on the effort.

And like other communities around metro Atlanta, the county has census information in several languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese, one of its biggest Asian communities. Trusted voices such as Angkor Resource Center, a Cambodian nonprofit in Riverdale, are working with the county to help educate minority communities who often mistrust the census because they fear the information will be used to arrest undocumented residents or think the census is only for United States citizens.

Shakeer Abdullah, a vice president of student affairs at Clayton State University, said the county will need every person reaching out to one another if the count is to succeed. Clayton State students have been asked to help spread the word and to be a conduit to their families, especially among those who don’t understand the census or are reluctant to be counted because they don’t trust how the information will be handled.

“With the changing demographics in Clayton County and different emerging populations who may or may not trust the census system, it’s important for our students to be messengers to help their families understand the importance of the census and the allocation of resources that come along with an accurate census count,” he said.

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