Sep 10, 2020

Axios Cities

Join Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Dave Lawler tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a live, virtual event on U.S. foreign policy in the post-pandemic world, featuring Carnegie Endowment for International Peace president William J. Burns, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace vice president for studies Evan A. Feigenbaum, and Carnegie Middle East Center director Maha Yahya.

Today's edition is 1,543 words, a 6-minute read

1 big thing: The race to finish the Census count

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

2. Coronavirus may preview acceleration of digital divide
Expand chart
Reproduced from NTIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus crisis may offer a grim preview of further marginalization for Americans of color in the coming decades, a new Deutsche Bank report concludes, as Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

The big picture: "COVID is a picture of what the world might look like in the future as it gets more digitized," Apjit Walia, a technology strategist with Deutsche Bank, told Axios. His report finds that Black and Hispanic Americans are particularly vulnerable to being left behind as the workforce further digitizes and inequality rises.

By the numbers: 76% of Black people and 62% of Hispanic people in the U.S. could be shut out or underprepared for 86% of jobs in the country by 2045, according to the report. The pandemic has already offered a model for how that divide might play out.

  • Black people had to venture out of their homes 135% more than white people in April 2020 compared to pre-COVID, Deutsche Bank found, per geolocation data gathered in majority Black and majority white neighborhoods in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
  • "We believe this is an accurate representation of the state of the racial digital divide in the country," write Walia and report co-author Sai Ravindran. "Clearly, poor access to Tech connectivity & work-from-home jobs rendered minorities with few choices but to venture out of home to make a living, even with peril to their lives."

Black and Hispanic people are a decade behind white people in the U.S. when it comes to levels of broadband access in the home, according to data Deutsche Bank highlights from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

What's next: Big Tech firms could step in to help bridge the digital divide, such as by offering job training and funding connectivity initiatives, Walia said.

3. Portland's broad new ban on facial recognition

The city council in Portland, Oregon, passed stringent new restrictions on facial recognition systems Wednesday, kicking off what could become a nationwide, city-by-city movement to limit the use of the technology.

The big picture: As has happened with other privacy-related regulations, local governments in the U.S. have given up waiting for Congress to pass national rules and have started taking action on their own.

Details: Portland passed two laws, one banning government agencies — including law enforcement — from using facial recognition, and the other banning use of the technology in privately owned but publicly accessible spaces.

Why it matters: Other municipalities will keep an eye on how Portland's laws work out and could use them as models.

Context: Portland has seen street protests over social justice issues for months, and the city became a partisan flashpoint after President Trump set it up as a symbol for urban anarchy and sent in federal forces.

  • Activists have long argued that law enforcement agencies use facial recognition technology to unconstitutionally identify and prosecute participants in peaceful, legal protests.

What they're saying: Rights groups cheered Portland's move.

  • “Face surveillance is an invasive threat to our privacy, especially to Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and women, who frequently are misidentified by the technology," Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. "We will not let Portland turn into a surveillance state where police and corporations alike can track us wherever we go."

What's next: Expect other cities, particularly those with more progressive governments, to consider similar measures.

  • Tech companies fear the emergence of a regulatory patch quilt in the U.S., with conflicting rules in different localities leading to legal confusion and slowing American development of an important new global technology.
4. Fiery light in West Coast cities

San Francisco's Sutro Tower looms over a bank of fog as the city is enveloped in orange light and smoke. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

The fires afflicting the American West are mostly located in forests and mountain ranges. But the massive smoke plumes have turned West Coast cities, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, into surreal tableaux of orange-tinged gloom.

Why it matters: Scientists believe climate change is driving higher temperatures and extreme weather. Residents up and down the West Coast — even those who aren't forced to evacuate or face the prospect of an incinerated community — are seeing and breathing the results.

In the Bay Area, Wednesday morning arrived without an appreciable sunrise, and the day's advance failed to obey the normal logic of the sun's progress.

  • As the morning hours ticked past, some neighborhoods took on an eerie orange-soda glow, then plunged back into darkness.
  • Multiple layers of thick smoke high in the atmosphere sat atop the region's traditional marine layer of fog, filtering out the sunlight and inhibiting the usual midday burnoff.
  • Residents shared satellite maps showing vast oceans of smoke flowing down from massive fires in Oregon as well as from the lower slopes of California's Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile: In Seattle, Axios' Amy Harder reports, the smoke dissipated a little Wednesday after Tuesday's onslaught. But pockets throughout Washington state were hard hit.

  • Malden, a town of about 200 people in eastern Washington, was nearly completely obliterated by a wildfire.
  • Amy's thought bubble: "It could have easily been the tiny eastern Washington town I grew up in, Sprague, whose population is 300 (give or take). Luckily, Sprague — and my family's cattle ranch less than a mile outside of it — are safe for now and not in direct line of any wildfire."
5. Urban files
  • Uber announces $800 million commitment to help its drivers buy electric vehicles (Axios)
  • Why suburbanites won't rally to President Trump's defense of their zoning rules (The Atlantic)
  • Small business are losing confidence in their survival (Axios)
  • In some communities, public libraries are being repurposed as day care centers for essential workers (Washington Post)
  • Americans support strict limits on building in fire- and flood-prone areas (New York Times)
6. 1 helpful thing: D.C. to foot school families' internet bills

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As remote learning turns broadband connection into a must-have for families with school-age kids, the D.C. city government is planning to spend $3.3 million to pay the monthly bill for about 25,000 low-income families for at least a year, the Washington Post reports.