TEXAS -- In the deluge of big headlines about the pandemic, protests and a presidential election, one important 2020 event has been shoved to the bottom of the pile: the U.S. Census.
The country’s decennial population count is well underway, but the spread of COVID-19 has complicated the process. Texas, in particular, has been one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic while also having federal funding and representation at stake when it comes to getting an accurate count of the ballooning population.
There are several operations for the yearlong census process, but two big ones that have been affected by the spread of coronavirus are the self-response period and the non-response follow-up.
The self-response period allows household members to fill out the survey. For the first time the Census Bureau is offering multiple ways for people to respond. The usual mail-in option is still available, but the bureau also allows people to fill out the survey online and over the phone by calling 844-330-2020. In addition to the different options, the survey is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.
In the original timeline, people had until the end of September to self-respond, but the spread of COVID-19 has forced the bureau to adjust. People now have until October 31 to self respond through any of the methods available.
The pandemic has also forced the non-response follow-up timeline to adjust. When people don’t self-respond, the Census Bureau sends workers called enumerators to physically go out to those households. Originally, non-response follow-up was supposed to start in May, but it has now been pushed back to August 11.
In a news briefing held over conference call, Associate Director for Decennial Census Programs Al Fontenot said the bureau was looking very closely at infection rates by state and community to decide which operations to reopen.
“We made a decision to reopen in a phased basis by state,” he said.
Among the considerations looked at prior to dispatching census workers to the field, according to Fontenot, was whether a state had begun the process of phased reopening and if data supported a health-based decision to restart such an operation.
As one of the hardest hit states in the country, in-person census operations have stalled in Texas, including the mobile access questionnaire program, where census workers would go out into the community at events, grocery stores, and areas of mass gatherings to encourage people to fill out the survey. Though the program is at a standstill at the moment, Jerome Garza, the assistant regional census manager, said the bureau has been hiring and training workers to be ready to mobilize once it is safe to go out into the community again.
“Given that there is a COVID outbreak, we respect that,” he said. “We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way.”
When non-response follow-up begins, the enumerators who are going into the communities will be given masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves when necessary. They will also be forced to follow strict social-distancing guidelines and are not allowed into people’s homes.
In the meantime, Garza said, the bureau has many community partners who are currently mobilizing to get the word out on the ground.
One such community partner is Alpha Business Images. ABI President Sophia Johnson partnered with other community organizations to raise awareness in the area of the importance of participating in the census.
Johnson said the plan before COVID had been to go where people are, and that plan has not changed. She and her organization are still out in the community, whether it’s at food pantries and hardware stores or protests. And starting next week, ABI will begin a door-to-door campaign.
“We are just pushing forward with wherever people are,” she said. “If there’s an opportunity for people to be together, that’s where we are.”
Johnson said her door-to-door operations will be different than when the official enumerators from the Census Bureau begin the non-response follow-up. Whereas census workers are there to help people answer the survey, ABI block walkers will only be there to raise awareness of the census, not to help them fill it out.
Additionally, Johnson said the door-to-door campaign will start in neighborhoods that have an average response rate in the hopes her team can raise it. Currently, the state’s response rate is at 56.8 percent while Dallas is at 53.3 percent. Dallas County is at 53.5 percent while Tarrant County is at 63 percent. The highest response rate in the area is Colleyville with 83.4 percent.
The biggest hurdles both ABI and the Census Bureau face in getting an accurate count is lack of awareness and mistrust. Many people don’t want the government to have their personal information, or perhaps people are worried about documentation or citizenship.
In instances like these, the Bureau emphasizes that all personal information respondents give is confidential. In fact, it’s illegal for any census worker to disclose personal information. Doing so could result in five years of jail time and a fine of $225,000.
Additionally, citizenship is not a concern for the Bureau; the mandate is to count everyone, regardless of citizenship status. If you’ve been here since April 1 of this year, you count for this area.
Another big challenge are cultural and language barriers, and this is a challenge that affects Texas in particular. To address this, Garza said the Census Bureau has made an effort to hire workers who speak other languages. It’s also why for the first time the census forms are available in so many languages.
“Without a doubt, we haven’t carried that message strong enough to poor and immigrant communities,” Garza said. “We need to do a better job of communicating that in fact for the first time ever, you can answer it in English and 12 other languages.”
To address the cultural barriers, Johnson and ABI have been reaching out to community influencers to get the word out. Trusted neighborhood authority figures like pastors and principals lend credibility to the census and can influence more people to fill it out.
But Johnson sees another issue: Many poor and underserved neighborhoods don’t have access to broadband internet and therefore can’t fill the census out online.
“This approach of using the internet has proven that it’s a real challenge. Not 100 percent to households have the internet,” she said.
The Census Bureau has been putting a lot of emphasis on the ability to fill out the survey online that they have not been focusing on means that are more widely available.
“Mail is universal and if you want a universal response, you should be using a universal medium,” Johnson said.
For years, Texas has ranked as one of the fastest growing states in the country. According to previous Census estimates, the state’s population has grown by 13.7 percent in the last eight years. In 2019, the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area alone had the largest numeric growth in the country, with 131,767 new residents.
This fast growth has underscored the importance of getting an accurate census count. According to the state comptroller, Texas could possibly gain two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would give the state an even bigger voice in national policy.
Furthermore, a bigger population means the reallocation of federal dollars to Texas. Everything from school funding, Pell grants, highway funding, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program could see an influx of money from the U.S. government.
“The census is a survey that means more money and more power,” Johnson said. “Without it, you’re not going to have the power and the money that we should have for our area.”
But in light of the importance of the census, Texas is also at a heightened risk for an undercount. Children, minority groups, and non-native English speakers are harder to reach, and Texas has high numbers of those.
Coupled with news of COVID-19, social unrest and a presidential election, the state is facing an uphill battle when it comes to getting an accurate count.
“There’s so much about COVID, but when there’s not information about COVID, it’s about the protests,” Johnson said. “And then you have a presidential election year going on and then jumping up and down in the middle all of this is the census. The information is constantly changing and that’s stealing a lot of the demand for attention and people are focused on that. We are doing everything that we can to fight it.”