WASHINGTON — Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau planned to kick off in-person counting and outreach efforts that are key to the 2020 count on April 1, “Census Day.”
Efforts to stop the spread of the virus scuttled those efforts, pushing a census process already rocked by controversy into unprecedented territory. Vulnerable communities already considered difficult to count — young children, the elderly, rural residents and people of color — face greater risk of being left out of the count, which is used to divvy up congressional representation, more than $1.5 trillion of federal spending and more.
People can still self-respond to the census questionnaire online, over the phone or by mail, but “everything else is critically affected because everything else requires people to go out and visit,” said University of Chicago professor Colm O’Muircheartaigh.
“It was already challenged by the controversy last year of the citizenship question, which I think has damaged trust in a fair number of communities,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “The hope was that by providing adequate training to (door knockers) and combining that with the campaign by trusted voices would have overcome that initial controversy.”
The Census Bureau uses “Census Day” as the reference for counting everyone in the country, and planned to use it to start in-person counting and outreach efforts. Over the weekend, the agency announced it postponed all field operations and hiring through at least April 15, after previously delaying them through April 1.
Agency spokesman Michael Cook said staff will “continue to assess the current situation making sure we follow the guidance of national and local public health officials,” and is looking at shaking up its plans in the next few weeks.
“The Census Bureau has operational contingencies in place to ensure that when staff and our facilities are affected, the work can still continue to be done to ensure we complete the 2020 census,” Cook said.
The pandemic creates unprecedented challenges for the census, according to former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 count.
Prewitt said prior crises have always been localized. “We have had storms, we have had fires and so on, and the Census Bureau is very good at getting Plan B going when Plan A doesn’t work,” he said.
“This is clearly a different game altogether. They are scrambling, of course, right now.”
If the delays keep the Census Bureau counters in the field until the fall, that could endanger the end-of-year deadline to deliver the state populations for congressional apportionment, Prewitt said.
Cook said the agency still anticipates meeting its December deadline. It is also comfortable dipping into a $2 billion contingency fund if it needs to hire more staff — potentially beyond the 500,000 planned door-knockers. The agency also could up its $500 million census advertising campaign.
The coronavirus has already affected census operations directly. Last week, an employee at the agency’s processing plant for paper responses tested positive for the virus, and Cook said the agency has already pulled back on staffing for the facility to implement social distancing.
In the meantime, Cook and others continue to urge the public to respond to the census on their own. By Monday, the self-response rate stood at 34% nationwide. Cook noted that when a household responds online, it does not require a census worker to be involved at a call center or processing facility.
The agency counts on about 60% of American households to respond, and census watchers have kept a close eye on that number.
A Pew Research survey released Monday showed about two thirds of those polled had heard about the census recently, and 80% said they “definitely will” or “probably will” participate. Respondents generally didn’t break along partisan lines over the census, said one of the survey’s authors, D’Vera Cohn.
She noted, though, that those numbers dropped among younger adults, black and Hispanic respondents.
“There certainly remains a gap in enthusiasm in people who have been harder to count in the past,” Cohn said.
Misunderstandings about the census still exist; more than half of Pew’s respondents incorrectly said the questionnaire will ask about citizenship.
Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights and Asian Americans Advancing Justice had counted on being able to directly reach out to people to counter that misinformation.
“Mistrust, misunderstanding, and misinformation are the perfect storm for our communities to be undercounted,” AAJC president John Yang told reporters.
More than 250 advocacy groups joined Monday in a pledge to protect census responses. Those are already protected by law, but Yang and other advocates said the public needs extra reassurances.
Faith groups, instead of pushing for census responses from the pulpit, have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms. Others like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials have had to retool years of planning for in-person outreach in hard-to-count communities.
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The group’s president, Arturo Vargas, told reporters last week his organization is trying to step up outreach efforts online, but already, response rates in large Hispanic communities like the Houston suburbs have lagged behind national totals.
“All of these strategies right now are impossible in the current environment,” Vargas said. “We’re all working from home, we are all now trying to determine how do we reach out to people.”