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State, Local Gov Face New Reality for 2020 U.S. Census

COVID-19 has thoroughly upended plans to support the Census that have been in the works for months or even years, and now stakeholders at all levels of government must stay flexible in finding creative ways to adapt.

by / May 5, 2020
Shutterstock/Linda Parton

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, stakeholders spent years creating plans to support the 2020 U.S. Census, many of which were just days from beginning when the virus broke out stateside in March.

There were television ads set for March Madness and the 2020 Olympics. There were thousands of posters printed for bus stops and subways. There was an army of staffers prepped to attend live events — concerts, sports, school fairs, festivals — all of whom were armed with tablets. There were librarians trained to help patrons get counted online with computers and public Internet. 

When the virus struck, however, these carefully laid plans crumbled along with the rest of American daily life, as businesses closed and masses sheltered in place. March Madness was cancelled, the Olympics delayed. Live events were scratched for the foreseeable future. Libraries hung closed signs as public transit ridership plummeted to bare minimums. People most-likely to respond went online and did, but the primary tools for reaching traditionally hard-to-count communities — including in-person interactions and door-to-door visits — were taken away or severely limited. 

Still, the Census goes on. The results of the once-per-decade count determine funding, political representation, and data used to make decisions for the next 10 years. Pandemic aside, the Census remains vital to America’s future, and so stakeholders at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — are still committed to lending support. Now, however, they are pivoting to stay flexible and get creative amid an unprecedented set of new challenges. 

Terri Ann Lowenthal is a nationally recognized Census expert currently on multiple complete count committees. She was previously the staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives Census oversight subcommittee from 1987 to 1994. Lowenthal recently discussed the scope of the COVID-19 disruption on the Census in a phone conversation with Government Technology.

“The scope of this crisis has affected every operation and activity for the 2020 Census, and the biggest challenge is the uncertainty,” Lowenthal said. “This is not something that happened and is over with, and the Census Bureau can adjust its plan and move forward. It is a crisis that is still developing and evolving without an end in site with a course no one can predict well. That requires the Census Bureau to be nimble on a daily, if not hourly, basis as to how it will modify its operations and its schedule to complete the count as thoroughly as possible.”

The most tangible way this has manifested is through an extension of the Census timeline. Typically, the Census happens mostly in March and April, with a follow-up period for non-responders running through July. The entire count is tabulated by November. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, however, federal officials have stretched the timeline, with that non-response follow-up period running until the end of October.

While this has the potential to raise questions about the accuracy of collected information — the goal of the Census is to collect data on where respondents live as of April 1 — the idea is to enable time for additional outreach once the crisis calms down, which in itself is still a presumption.

Lowenthal said this seems likely to lead to extended promotion at the federal level, as well as to drilling down on the newest way that many can get counted at home — online response. Even so, major challenges remain as a result of COVID-19.

“The pandemic hit at the worst time for the Census because the self-response operation was just starting,” she said, “and all of the activities that local governments and their community partners were planning to promote and to facilitate Census responses — especially in historically undercounted communities — that they’ve been planning for months and even years were stopped dead in their tracks, almost overnight.”

There is a long list of missed opportunities to reach people in historically undercounted Census tracts, which include college students, minority communities, and some rural areas. These opportunities range from commercials during March Madness to ads on public transit to sending staffers to church gatherings over Easter. The Census is the largest peace-time mobilization of the U.S. government, and the scope of the planning was enormous. 

And while it is easy to get swept up in dwelling on the damage to these carefully-laid plans, Lowenthal also noted that one cause for optimism is that from the Census Bureau down, folks involved with the count are showing increased agility and creativity in the face of the crisis.

This was evident on national television this week. All sports have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, with many television shows and feature-length movies delayed as well due to a mix of movie theaters closing and productions paused in the name of social distance. ESPN, however, has been airing a 10-part documentary on Sundays about the Michael Jordan-era 1990s Chicago Bulls, one of the most popular sports teams of all time — and during that program this week was a prominent ad reminding viewers that a successful Census gets their communities the funding and political representation to which they are entitled.

A series of recent conversations with stakeholders at the state and local levels found a similar level of flexibility and innovation taking hold. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Detroit had arguably the most thorough Census preparation effort of any community in the nation. A lot of what Detroit had planned has been upended with everything else, including sending staffers to do outreach at more than 90 major public gatherings in the city between March and May, said Victoria Kovari, the executive director of Detroit’s 2020 Census campaign.

The pandemic caused a major pivot in strategy there, as it did across the country.

“We had to spend a week or two figuring out what we were going to do,” said Kovari, “and so we had 110 Census Captains and we were giving them a little stipend every month — $200 in a gift card — so we had all these people eager to do stuff.”

They had an army of facilitators, many of whom come from hard-to-count communities and are trusted by the people who live there. So, instead of sending them door-to-door, the Detroit campaign had them call 20 friends, whom they then asked to call 20 friends, and so on — all promoting the Census. They have now created a virtual phone bank to keep the calls going. This phone bank has been up about a week, making 10,000 calls and counting. 

Like many other cities, Detroit is also redoubling its efforts on social media, doing so by creating a competition among neighborhoods to have the highest rate of responses, a competition that Kovari said has gotten quite a bit of buzz on the community-based platform, Nextdoor.

Still, while the online element is helpful to some, it’s also problematic in a place like Detroit, where many residents are on the challenging side of the digital divide, without access to technology or a reliable high-speed Internet connection at home. To reach these folks, Census workers there are taking a decidedly low-tech approach, including Census literature in food boxes given out by distribution centers and local churches.

The Census effort also piggy-backed on a massive $23 million cross-sector investment made in digital equity. A number of entities teamed up to give public school students in Detroit tablets with six months of Internet service, so that they could continue learning online while sheltering during the crisis. With the school district already an established Census partner since January, organizers were able to include cards encouraging recipients of the tablets to go online and fill out the Census.

“We’re really trying to use other methods than just digital to get the message out, but we really do have to increase our Internet response rate as well,” Kovari said. “We’re committed to trying to work both ends but being realistic about where most Detroiters are at, and trying to keep this message of the Census in front of folks over the long haul.”

And Detroit is far from the only community grappling with low access to technology or the Internet. That is a problem that also extends to rural areas of the country, including Indian Country, which are the regions that are home to Indian reservations. 

Kevin J. Allis is the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, and he said his group is concerned about an undercount costing its communities resources for the next decade, which is particularly troublesome because their lands are held in federal trust, making them almost entirely reliant on the government for support rather than property tax revenue. Almost 40 percent of those communities also have no access to broadband, Allis said. 

What this means is that the paused face-to-face outreach efforts are crucial, and really the only chance to count most of the residents of these 334 communities throughout the U.S., which are estimated to total around 700,000 people.

“Tribal communities don’t regularly respond to the kind of outreach the Census Bureau has engaged in with the rest of the country in the same fashion,” Allis said. “They’re more of a community who needs a safe person to talk to, they need someone they recognize in order to give up any information necessary for the Census. That personal touch goes away, and what that means is you need enumerators in the field, you need them in the reservation, knocking on doors and talking to people.”

All that can really be done for those communities is to wait until the crisis subsides enough to send staffers out in-person, staffers who have been tested, given protective gear, and versed in social distancing. Allis said that in the meantime some other flexible actions have been taken, including his own group asking funders to redirect donations to tribal governments and others who are closer to the folks who need to be reached. 

At the state level, there is tangible reason for hope of a thorough count in some parts of the county. California, for example, is ahead of the national rate of counting, with 57.5 percent counted so far compared to a national response rate of 56.3 percent, at least at the time of this writing. Ditas Katague is the director of California’s Complete Count Committee, and she said the state has continued to work closely with its 120-funded partner groups, leveraging their connections and expertise to reach people in the midst of the crisis.

As in other areas, this has meant providing Census info along with food bank and school lunch programs. Other creative approaches have involved taking the Census outreach T-shirts that were originally going to be worn at public gatherings and having staff members of grocery stores wear them or pass them out with purchases. This is inherently low-tech, but other California efforts have involved continuing to use complex data-mapping strategies to give partner organizations info about where uncounted residents are most likely to be found.

So yes, holistically local and state-level Census outreach groups have gotten creative, doubled-down on social media, and done their best to pivot to new strategies. That, of course, will only get the count so far. The extended window for remuneration will also be key, and with that in mind, many stakeholders are in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting to learn when they will be able to deploy more proactive methods to contact households, ideally in person. That too, however, will likely need to be modified or changed during the crisis.

“We’re waiting to see at what point can we go back outside,” said Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a planner within Houston’s Planning and Development Department who is involved with Census outreach. “Maybe it’s a no-knocking canvassing campaign, and we just put door hangers on your door about the Census. We still need to meet people where they are.”

A goal of Census outreach from the start has been to impress upon as many as possible why the count is important. In that respect, Smith said COVID-19 gives them very tangible evidence of why completing the Census matters. Basically, the idea is to emphasize that the federal support being given during this crisis is a result of someone taking their Census 10 years ago.


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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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