Interview: Counting Over 300 Million People During A Pandemic

May 27, 2020 · 9 min read
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Photo Credit: Massachusetts Voter Table

By Evelyn Li

The Constitution requires that an enumeration of all individuals living in the United States be conducted every ten years. Even a global pandemic will not stop the Census. But the current health crisis creates obstacles for the collection of an accurate count. And the stakes are high: the Census determines resource-allocation and political representation throughout the next decade.

To better understand how COVID-19 is affecting Census outreach efforts, Equal Citizens Fellow Evelyn Li spoke to Beth Huang.

Beth is the Director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, a statewide coalition of grassroots organizations that uses integrated voter engagement to expand civic access, participation, and representation of communities of color. She convenes MassCounts to prepare the grassroots organizations for the 2020 Census, is a member of the Steering Committee of the economic justice coalition Raise Up Massachusetts, and advocates for increased civic access and voting rights as part of the Election Modernization Coalition.

Note: For more background on Huang and her efforts to ensure an accurate Census count, check out our January 30th episode of Another Way. In it, our Campaigns Manager Adam Eichen spoke with her in-depth about how the decennial census works, why it is so important, and the difficulties involved in enumeration.

First of all, how has your organizing around the census changed in response to COVID-19? Have you altered your goals for what a successful effort looks like?

Like our daily lives and everything else, COVID-19 has upended census outreach. Mass Counts has shifted all of our outreach from in-person assistance to phone and digital outreach. So, initially we had planned to host assistance centers to help people fill out the census online. Now, we have made sixty thousand phone calls. We have a digital advertising campaign that is slated to reach a quarter million residents of the lowest response tracts. We’re using the internal communication systems of lots of nonprofit organizations. We are shifting towards Facebook and Instagram Live events, including weekly Census cafés on Thursdays. And our volunteer recruitment effort is totally different, since we’re doing phone and text banking.

In March, the Census Bureau announced an extension of the self-response and follow-up phases of the enumeration. They were supposed to end on July 31 but will now be extended. What are your thoughts on the extension?

At this point, the Census Bureau has announced that the count will run through October 31st. Congress still needs to approve that change, but we are pretty confident that it will happen. When you look at a calendar, October 31st, in addition to being Halloween, also falls during Get Out the Vote weekend. One thing that I think a lot of democracy advocates should be careful about: We probably will have to combine our Get Out the Vote and Get Out the Count efforts, and we need to be mindful of how those two messages sometimes can be conflated.

This is the first year that the Census will be completed primarily online. What do the current self-reporting numbers tell us? Are we in good shape for an accurate count? Did the move towards online responses come at the perfect time?

We are definitely concerned. In mid-May, the total U.S self-response rate was 59.1%. The final self-response rate in 2010 was 66.5%. So, knowing that the self-response deadline was supposed to be May 12th, we are still a full 5% behind nationally of where we were a decade ago. [Editor’s note: as of the date of publication, the most recently reported self-response rate is 60.1%. It can be tracked here.] The gap is even a little bit higher in Massachusetts: 61.9% of households have responded, and our final self response rate in 2010 was 68.8%. [Editor’s note: the most recently reported self-response rate in Massachusetts as of this writing is 62.2%.]

There is an organization called Update Leave, which is a Census Bureau operation targeted at rural areas where residents do not receive mail at their address (they receive mail at their P.O box). For those households that receive mail at their P.O box, there is actually a Census Bureau staff person who is supposed to hand deliver a letter to their house. In many of those Update Leave areas, which includes so much of Western Massachusetts and so much of Cape Cod, the response rates are so, so low. They are under thirty percent! I am not so concerned about the final self-response rates in places that are covered by the Update Leave operation, as they will likely improve when follow-up begins. What I am really worried about is the rate of response in many COVID-19 hotspots that are working class communities of color. These response rates are lagging pretty significantly from their 2010 final response rates. That is why we’re making all these calls into low-response Census tracts. And we actually combined wellness checks in many of those communities with a push to Get Out the Count.

Do you think there is overlap between communities that are already hard-to-count and communities made harder to count because of COVID-19?

It is a huge, huge overlap. It is almost one for one. When we think of where low-wage immigrant workers live, where low-wage Black American workers live, those are exactly the places that had low response rates in 2010, and where COVID-19 is doing the most damage. It is also where the response rates are lagging the most right now.

Is the Census being completed online for the first time another factor, on top of COVID-19, for response rates lagging in these hard-to-count tracts?

It is definitely a factor. There are over three hundred thousand households that lack broadband access in Massachusetts. Many of those are in rural communities, and many of those are in the lowest income urban neighborhoods, as well.

Census workers have to be sent to the households that failed to self-report. What is being done to protect Census workers from COVID-19, and is it enough?

Nothing is going to be enough. The Census Bureau operations, for the most part, have been pushed back by three months and, in some places, more than three months. Census Bureau enumerators are essential workers. Like all essential workers, they need access to PPE and paid sick time. So many workers have been left out of the CARES act paid sick time provision. That is why, we need policies at the state and local level that grant emergency paid sick time to Census takers.

When follow up visits begin, is there concern about people who are observing strict social distancing being unresponsive or unreceptive to Census door-knockers? How do we know that Census workers will not be carriers that spread the disease to the houses they visit?

I know. It is really hard to tell. Hopefully the state and federal government will ramp up testing so we can know who has already had COVID-19, who currently has COVID-19, and who is still negative. I think that is the only way. It is like everything else. It is a matter of testing and PPE.

Is there still a shortage of Census workers? Will rising unemployment encourage recruitment of Census workers? Or do you think people will be afraid to sign up for a job that requires so much in-person interaction?

I believe the Census Bureau’s hiring is on hold until June 1st. But I would imagine that once they start hiring again, they will have zero vacancies.

COVID has displaced many people, such as college students. Is there a plan to reach these constituencies?

Most colleges and universities, at least in the Northeast region, have a program called Group Quarters. There are two ways of doing Group Quarters. One is that the school passes out paper forms to people living in their residential facilities, and the other uses the administrative data from the school to fill out the Census for residents. I am sure more colleges and universities signed up to participate in Group Quarters due to COVID-19. And many of the large institutions are going to use administrative data from colleges to complete the count on behalf of students. College students that were supposed to be counted on the campuses (where they would have been living on April 1st, Census Day) are still being counted on their campus.

What about the other groups of people that have been displaced from where they usually live?

One of the more troubling COVID-19 disruptions on the Census is that two important Census Bureau operations pertaining to people experiencing homelessness are currently on hold. Normally, the Census Bureau operates the Service Based Enumeration of Transitory Locations. The Census Bureau partners with many social service agencies that work closely with people experiencing homelessness and under this effort they promote the 2020 Census to their clients. Right now, though, these efforts are on hold. An accurate count of people with unstable housing has always been a challenge. The COVID-19 has magnified these challenges this year. But early awareness about the 2020 Census means that agencies addressing homelessness, as overwhelmed as they are, do have materials about the 2020 Census in key areas — in shelters, in offices and more.

Asians reported a lower likelihood than any other group in filling out the Census on their own. Do you think the growing anti-Asian sentiment — driven by conspiracy theories and hate regarding COVID-19 — will lower Asian participation further?

There are so many different types of AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] people. The efforts to offer Census materials in all of the different languages that AAPI people speak is really important. In our weekly phone banks we have Cantonese speakers, Vietnamese speakers, and Mandarin speakers. There will probably be one for Khmer speakers. I think language outreach is really important. You can make people feel better by speaking their language. This is so critical when doing outreach in immigrant communities, even though most residents will have some English proficiency.

Do you think Massachusetts did enough to ensure an accurate count?

People are more responsive, I think, to their city council members and other local officials than to the federal government. After all, they have an easier time getting in touch with their city councillors than their members of Congress. That is one major reason why we advocated for $1 million to be invested in municipal governments to Get Out the Count. A handful of municipalities have gotten funding, but our Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Galvin, has not dispersed half of the total funding yet. So while local governments are hurting right now — because no one is getting sales tax revenue — the Secretary of State is sitting on nearly a million dollars that should be going to municipal governments. I do not know if that is an issue in other states, but it certainly is in Massachusetts.

Another problem is that [Governor] Charlie Baker has yet to even utter the words “2020 Census.” He has really missed the boat on this one. It is extremely important for him to make the connection that participation in the 2020 Census will help deliver badly-needed public health resources to places experiencing COVID-19. It certainly does not need to be the centerpiece of his COVID-19 message — we are not expecting it to be either — but we do think it is important for the chief executive of Massachusetts to mention that the 2020 Census is how the allocation of resources is determined. For instance, it would be so helpful, as millions become unemployed, for state unemployment websites to have a banner promoting the 2020 Census. Those same banners can be on state Medicaid websites, as millions of people enroll in Medicaid. Same goes for SNAP. It is a major missed opportunity that, even though we have sent them the materials, many of these public offices have not promoted the 2020 Census.

Anything else people should know about the Census?

There are really important outreach efforts happening across the country. Largely, they are coordinated by the States Count Action Network. [Mass Counts is part of the States Count Action Network.] In Massachusetts, we are running phone banks four times per week. This is also happening in many other states. In Massachusetts and across the country, there are also text banks. Text banking and phone banking efforts target many different groups of people and are all incredibly important. Joining them is a great way to get involved. So too are there a lot of digital organizing efforts targeting people who have been hit hard by COVID-19 and those who have always been living in communities invisible to policy makers. Ensuring every community is counted is the first step towards creating a responsive government. I hope your readers consider joining the cause.

Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and an incoming student at the University of Chicago.

Equal Citizens

A conversation about (finally) achieving political equality.

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