Yes, There’s Still A 2020 Census. Pandemic Necessitates Creativity In State Promotion

You can spare a census taker from having to go door-to-door later by answering the 2020 census online or by phone right now.
You can spare a census taker from having to go door-to-door later by answering the 2020 census online or by phone right now. CREDIT: U.S. Census Bureau

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Give yourself a pat on the back if you have already responded to the 2020 census. Residents of Pacific Northwest states are doing an above average job fulfilling their civic duty. But there is still a long way to go amid a virus pandemic that has forced many adjustments.

A near real time map of 2020 census self-response rates shows that 42% of Washington state and Idaho households at known addresses have completed the census as of April 1. The rate is 40.5% for Oregon, compared to the national average of 38% to date.

April 1 is Census Day, the reference date for where to record the place you usually live and sleep. Census Day is not a deadline for the decennial count of everyone living in the U.S. The U.S. Census Bureau launched its questionnaire response portals weeks ago and will continue counting deep into summer.

In a normal year, thousands of temporary census takers would fan out across the Northwest and the nation in April, May and June to follow up with households that didn’t respond on their own to the census. However, census worker training and field operations are on hold because of the coronavirus. The pandemic is forcing state and local groups to change their census outreach on the fly too, to make sure everyone is counted by midsummer.

Long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, Oregon, Washington and California budgeted millions of state taxpayer dollars to boost the response rate to the federal population count. State agencies awarded grants and contracts to community groups and civic associations to promote the 2020 census and help people in disadvantaged or hard-to-count groups fill out their census questionnaires. This was to be face-to-face work mostly, which is now deemed unsafe.

“What’s been completely undone is the ability to do large events,” said Marc Baldwin, who oversees census outreach funding in the Washington state budget office in Olympia. “So, all over the state about 500 organizations that we’ve been working with are changing their plans to do more online and virtual outreach or talking to people over the phone.”

Groups like Seattle-based OneAmerica and Ashland-based We Count Oregon had hired temp workers to go door-to-door. Those folks are now phone banking and texting to encourage people to answer the census.

OneAmerica Communications Director Robin Engle said her nonprofit is still determined to help 2,000-3,000 immigrants and refugees in Washington state respond. She said the necessary pivot away from face-to-face contacts is complicated by uneven access to tools like video conferencing.

“We’re still trying to figure out what our path forward will be in these times,” Engle said in a telephone interview while working from home. “We’re committed to make sure our communities get counted.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown addressed a virtual Census Day party on Wednesday that was originally envisioned as an in-person event before the coronavirus outbreak.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown addressed a virtual Census Day party on Wednesday that was originally envisioned as an in-person event before the coronavirus outbreak. CREDIT: We Count Oregon

On Wednesday, We Count Oregon hosted a virtual Census Day party to share encouragement and celebrate participation, particularly by communities of color. The two-hour party was peppered with livestreamed music and speeches, including from Gov. Kate Brown.

“Especially in these unprecedented times, I am gravely concerned that an undercount in our census will impact everyone, but especially our hard-to-count communities with fewer funds for critical public services they rely on like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and Section 8 housing vouchers,” Brown told the