It was recently reported that the Pennsylvania school district Wyoming Valley West was preparing to punish students and their families who had unpaid lunch debt. The school board threatened to involve child services if the bills were not paid. Different private donors approached the school district to pay off the debt, including Philly’s own La Colombe founder Todd Carmichael. While his offer to donate the full $22,000 was eventually accepted, it is a generous quick fix. The long-term solution to this issue is for the state to respond to rising poverty levels by implementing federal nutrition assistance for all students, no matter their family’s income status.

To do that, every household must be accurately accounted for in the 2020 Census.

Throughout March and April, the 2020 Census will ask Americans nationwide to share their data with the government to determine the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funding. In Philadelphia alone, organizations receive more than $3 billion in federal funds each year. Even just a 1% decrease in the population count can dramatically reduce funding for essential services like Medical Assistance, Highway Planning and Construction, and the National School Lunch Program, which would help students like the ones in Wyoming Valley West.

Census 2020 aims to count every person in the United States through April of next year.
ALICE HEYEH / Getty Images
Census 2020 aims to count every person in the United States through April of next year.

Obtaining a complete and accurate count is crucial to the continued funding of our public and social service infrastructure. But getting an accurate count is not expected to be easy.

According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government has hit a historic low. Only 17% of Americans (representing all political affiliations) say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).

So when the government is literally knocking on your door, should you answer? Yes.

Philly Counts, the city’s effort to support the next census, is making a conscious effort to combat distrust in the government and increase participation by recruiting Census Champions to be their messengers. They have plans to train 1,000 volunteers to talk about the census, why it’s important, and that all data submitted to the Census Bureau is protected and can be used only for statistical purposes. The trainings will be in four languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Vietnamese — and the census itself will be available in 12.

Census Champions are often community leaders that are already trusted resources in their neighborhoods and social circles. This includes block captains, teachers, religious leaders, committee people, and elected officials, and a person doesn’t need to have an official title to get involved. Maybe it’s someone who works at the corner store, is the go-to person on the block when the power’s out, or who knows all of the parents at their local playground. Anyone that is embedded into their community, whatever that may look like, is needed to deliver the census so that all Philadelphians can complete it with confidence.

Philly Counts knows it is more effective for people to hear the message from their family or peers than to hear it from the government. Can you support their mission?

If you or your organization would like to host a Census Champions training on or after Sept. 17, please contact Philly Counts by completing the form on its website at

The city needs trusted community members to participate so that all individuals count and are fairly represented to their government. If we can achieve a 100% count, we can help prevent issues like school lunch debt from happening in the future.

Jen Devor is a former candidate for city commissioner and will be hosting her own Census Champions training in Point Breeze on Sept. 17.