Faced with sharply reduced federal funding for outreach efforts, Island leaders and organizations on Martha’s Vineyard are scrambling to prepare for one of the most difficult, yet high stakes, challenges of the year: the 2020 census.

Scheduled to launch officially on April 1, the decennial census is always a herculean task, involving up to 2 million temporary employees nationwide and a massive effort to ensure that every person, not just citizen, is counted during a three-month window. The endeavor is even more daunting in a place like Martha’s Vineyard, because of the high population of renters, seasonal residents, and, now, a large Brazilian immigrant community.

And this year has brought even more hurdles.

While there have been minor efforts by the government to hire enumerators to perform the actual count this go-round, with a few posters appearing in libraries and other public spaces, Islanders who went through the process in 2010 said it occurred much earlier and that trainings happened in the spring and winter.

Perhaps more concerning is that federal funding traditionally available ahead of the actual census to generate awareness and understanding, especially among immigrant and other at-risk groups, has all but dried up.

“It’s challenging,” said Alex Elvin, who works as a general planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and has been working to secure grants for the upcoming 2020 census. “They’ve cut back funding, in this region and across the country.”

The rate of federal funding for the 2020 census has already fallen far below 2010 and 2000, leaving rural communities like the Vineyard confused and uncertain about how the 2020 process will proceed — and forcing local leaders to rush to raise money and awareness for a process that generally begins months earlier.

“All of those go together to create a really difficult environment to conduct a census,” said Keith Chatinover, a Dukes County commissioner who is heading the Island’s “complete count” committee. The goal of the committee is to raise awareness for the census throughout the Island and remind at-risk groups that information provided in the forms is entirely confidential. The group is not involved with the mechanics of counting.

“When we got started, my thought was that we would have lots of funding opportunities from the state and federal government, which has not happened,” Mr. Chatinover said.

The number of regional centers for the census has been cut in half, from 12 to six, according to Mr. Elvin. The number of area census bureaus has been reduced from 500 to 300. And the funding rate for the census over the past three years, from 2016 to 2019, has been about half the rate of funding in 2000 and about two-thirds the rate for 2010, according to a study of federal funding by UrbanWire. During the last go-round, the local activist groups on the Vineyard already had a full-time hire to help raise awareness. This time, they haven’t had the money to hire one yet.

To make matters worse, the census is fast approaching. Although the official count begins April 1, mailers are supposed to arrive on Islanders doorstops starting on March 12, with mail reminders occurring throughout the month. Island organizations and activists remain in a tight race against the clock to get the word out.

“In the last couple of years leading up to the prior censuses, they usually do various types of testing of their procedures. That’s where the funding really fell short this time,” Mr. Elvin said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how this is going to play out.”

In order to fill in those gaps left by the lack of federal funding, the state has allocated about $3 million dollars for outreach and assistance. But 150 communities applied for the money, with requests totaling $14 million, Mr. Elvin said. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission asked for $30,000. It found out on Wednesday that it would receive one third of that.

While the $10,000 will allow the commission to hire someone full-time to oversee communication with at-risk communities, some leaders fear that informational material distribution and logistics over the next three months may be too little, too late.

“We had to cut back on some of the things we wanted to do, like buy computers for the centers for aging, where people can go and fill out the forms,” Mr. Elvin said.

Mr. Chatinover said lethargy at the federal level had made outreach efforts difficult, thus far.

“This is supposed to be an effort that was supposed to be started sometime last year, maybe in the spring and summer,” he said. “It’s definitely not where we’re supposed to be.”

Throughout the state, the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee and Advocacy coalition has been leading the census awareness effort for immigrant communities, including those on the Vineyard. Executive director and chairman of the state-wide census committee, Eva Millona, said that the rhetoric at the national level surrounding immigration, as well as the failed effort to get a citizenship question on the census, had damaged an already-fragile trust within the Brazilian population on the Island, making the count even more difficult.

Approximately 10 per cent of the Island is foreign-born, she said.

“This is one of the most challenging censuses of our time,” Ms. Millona said. “We work with immigrants on the Vineyard and they say they have not seen a particular increase of deportation in that area, but the environment is scary and they are afraid. This is a very hard-to-reach community, and to convince them that filling out this form will not go against you, this is hard. It is requiring a lot of work and resources.”

Ms. Millona said that MIRA has partnered with local institutions, like churches, schools and centers of aging, to help spread the word that the count is necessary and important. She said that

the Vineyard also had a large number of mixed-status families, including temporary workers and non-permanent residents who also needed to be counted.

The 2020 census will also be the first time in the history of the nation-wide count that residents can fill out the census forms online. According to Mr. Elvin, the ability to fill out forms online marks the biggest shift in the census’s history since the 1970’s, when it started to rely on the postal service. He said that some people believe the change is part of the reason that the federal government cut back other forms of funding for the count.

“The thought was that the online option would reduce costs for the on-the-ground part of the census,” Mr. Elvin said. “So it was my understanding that there were some cost-cutting efforts, so less money was spent on actual community outreach this year.”

But there are benefits to the shift online, Mr. Chatinover said. While mailers are generally in English, the forms online are in 13 different languages, including Portuguese. He also said that filling the form out online would make it less likely that people received a follow-up knock on their door. There is no requirement to fill out the forms online, although the federal government predicts that two out of five residents would respond electronically.

“It’s a huge plus,” Mr. Chatinover said. “The thought of having a federal employee come to your door can be terrifying for people.”

Others were less confident that the online count would work on the Vineyard, especially among the Islands’ growing elderly community. John Newsom worked as a census enumerator back in 2010 — one of the people who went around knocking on doors to follow up on residents who had not responded to the mailings. He said it was a great experience, and stressed the importance of a personal interaction with the community.

“I think you have to talk to the people,” Mr. Newsom said. “A lot of the people who live on the Vineyard year-round are elderly and they really can’t handle that stuff. I think that a face-to-face is important.”

Traditionally, the federal government waits to see the response rate before determining its on-the-ground presence for follow-up door knocks. Georgia Lowe, the Vineyard’s census liaison with the federal government, did not respond to an email request for information about the process.

The stakes for an accurate count are high, with census numbers used to determine how much federal funding goes to states and local areas. The money is used for everything from health care, child care, affordable housing, and education. It is also used to redraw legislative districts, at the federal and state level.

Those numbers last for a decade, and there’s no second chance if the count is inaccurate, which is why Vineyarders are doing everything they can to get it right, despite the challenges.

“Every 10 years we get a new batch of data, and we’re stuck with it,” Mr. Chatinover said. “It’s frustrating from my perspective because there is so much grant money that is affected. It affects everything.”