Sep 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The race to finish the Census count

Illustration of skyscrapers.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With less than three weeks to go before the 2020 U.S. Census ends, cities are anxiously nudging residents to stand up and be counted, but they're bumping up against a tightened deadline, pandemic complications and general confusion.

Why it matters: The once-a-decade count determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding gets allocated to states, counties and cities to support essential services including public education and public health. It also determines congressional districts and provides the most detailed view of how U.S. demographics are changing.

What's happening: City officials are frustrated with a lack of communication from the Census Bureau and frequent process changes that have confused residents — particularly those who are historically less likely to respond.

Where it stands: The Census Bureau says 88.8% of housing units have been accounted for as of Tuesday, with 23% counted by census data collectors and 65.5% of households self-responding online, by phone or by mail.

  • All efforts to count the remaining people end Sept. 3o, barring a court-ordered extension.
  • The Trump administration set that deadline last month, abruptly moving it up from Oct. 31. (An original deadline of July 31 was previously extended to give people more time to respond during the pandemic.)

The intrigue: COVID-19 already complicated the count by thwarting in-person events, door-knocking campaigns and other response-boosting strategies.

  • And filling out a census form isn't top of mind for most people grappling with pandemic and economic worries. "This falls in the pile of things they want to get to, but ultimately never do," said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts 2020.
  • Meanwhile, local census officials tell Axios that Washington's politicization of the census has sown distrust and made the public less likely to open their doors to field workers.

Such factors pose a hurdle to both the census itself and cities' own efforts to send out volunteers to encourage and help people to participate.

A federal judge Saturday issued a temporary restraining order to stop the "winding down or altering" of census field operations, which the groups that sued the government said would risk undercounting minority communities. The order is in place until a Sept. 17 hearing.

In Detroit, the self-response rate is only 53.6%. The digital divide has been a huge barrier to getting hard-to-count communities — such as low-income residents, people of color and non-English speakers — to respond.

  • "There's a lot of fear of technology. People are afraid they'll make a mistake and it will come back to haunt them," said Victoria Kovari, executive director of the Detroit 2020 Census Campaign.
  • Some people left downtown Detroit to ride out the outbreak and still haven't returned.
  • Many city residents are renters. But field workers are having trouble getting cooperation from apartment building managers because of virus fears, Kovari said.

In Philadelphia, where the self-response rate is 62.4%, mailed response forms arrived just as stay-at-home orders started.

  • With the coronavirus keeping many housebound, the usual strategies to get people to respond at block parties and around transit centers did not work.
  • "People just weren't responding to those mailed pieces, and we have never been able to make up for that" in the response, Reid said.
  • One strategy that's proven effective: Talking to people in city parks between 4 and 7 pm, when they seem more willing to have a socially distanced conversation about the census.

In San Antonio, the self-response rate is 67.2%. Phone banks, caravans through low-response communities, street banners, gas station ads, targeted mobile marketing and coordinated media campaigns helped fill the response gap left by the coronavirus.

  • But due to fewer-than-expected Census Bureau enumerators on the ground and the shortened deadline, field workers expect to follow up with households fewer times than planned.
  • "This continuous change in the operation has been an added distraction," said Berta Rodriguez, census administrator with the City of San Antonio. "It's made our job much harder. But we're going full tilt until the last minute."

Go deeper: Why this year's census may be the toughest count yet

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