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Coronavirus is taking its toll on the Census

The timing of this pandemic really sucks.

The nonprofit Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston had more than 15 tabling events planned over the next several weeks where volunteers were going to post up at festivals, fairs and other community gatherings and educate people about the value of filling out the census.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit. One by one, gatherings were canceled, and Texans increasingly became subject to stay-at-home orders.

“This is a very challenging census,” said Ana Mac Naught, census coordinator of the Houston in Action coalition, a collaboration between the city of Houston, Harris County and more than 50 local organizations, including Interfaith Ministries. “We are focusing on what we’re able to do at this moment.”

Local governments and nonprofits knew they already had their work cut out for them when Texas — in keeping with many other Republican-led states — declined to approve funding for grassroots census outreach.

Initial returns show Texas is already behind the rest of the nation: The self-response rate statewide is 31.3 percent compared to 36.2 nationally, as of Monday, the most recent data available. Most households have responded online. After the last census in 2010, Texas tied for the 7th lowest response rate in the country at 64.4 percent.

Now, leaders of groups helping with the count say they’re facing a whole new set of challenges as the coronavirus crisis thwarts their efforts to engage people face-to-face, and they’re forced to quickly pivot to digital and phone-based alternatives.

[…]

Harris County trails the rest of the state with a 30.7 percent response rate while Bexar County is ahead at 32.7 percent. So far, the more affluent, suburban parts of both metropolitan areas are participating at higher rates than the urban cores. That’s something local leaders say they are watching closely, as they try to target the large Hispanic and other hard-to-count communities in both cities.

It’s too early to tell whether the decline is related to coronavirus, but Texas has faced an uphill battle.

According to the Center for Urban Research, one in four Texans belong to a hard-to-count population, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and refugees, renters, college students, children under the age of 5, and the LGBTQ community.

This time period of self-response is especially important, local leaders say, because the more households participate now, the fewer people that stand to be missed later and the fewer households that will require a visit from a census taker.

“People definitely understand that the census is not on the top of people’s priority list,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, coordinator of Texas Counts, a statewide initiative from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy. “We are trying to look for these very non-intrusive ways to get the message out there about the census.”

See here for the background. As I said before, the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there. There’s no reason at all why we have to be slaves to the original schedule, given the life-altering event that has disrupted literally everything else on the planet. If that pushes back the 2021 redistricting process and the 2022 primaries, then so be it. The only impediment is our own willingness to recognize the truth. Houston Public Media, which interviews County Judge Lina Hidalgo about this, has more.

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6 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    “….the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there.”

    100% agree.

  2. Robert Nagle says:

    I worked as an IT clerk for the Census during the first part of the year, but was furloughed in mid-March. Quite apart from the Census results (which are important), this employed a lot of people — many middle-aged and retired (so vulnerable populations). You may not know this, but veterans receive preferential treatment during the application process, so this short term opportunity has been particularly helpful to older veterans.

    That said, while I worked there, the Census was slow in trying to adapt to changing conditions. During the time where operations have been shut down, I’ll assume that higher ups are changing their strategies for outreach and intake.

    The problem is that the Decennial Census is about a single data point — where were you on April 1? — so they can’t delay operations for too long without the data from becoming less reliable. Starting from scratch would also be very expensive — although perhaps in the grand scheme of things, not that expensive. Also, they can’t outsource, and the nature of the work doesn’t allow you to work remotely for many tasks.

    The irony of course is that it’s easy to complete your census forms online — despite minor hiccups, the website has worked fine. Also, people in areas with historically low response rates have been mailed paper forms in order to increase responses.

  3. Robert Nagle says:

    Seriously, they need to hire a celebrity spokesperson who can go on all the national talk shows. Maybe they can sponsor a major concert or two. All this time they can provide a phone number you could call — maybe to do it by phone. There are ways to work around the pandemic — and frankly many people have a lot of downtime now. One thing: the law states that the Census needs to report its results by a deadline (can’t remember; October or November). The delivery date could be changed by a month or two if necessary.

  4. brad says:

    Robert, those are great ideas. Feds need to pull in talk show hosts to do a PSA at the beginning of and/or during their shows.

  5. Manny says:

    I agree with Bill, oh my.

  6. […] one could have seen this coming. In truth, I’m kind of glad to see it. I’d much rather have a delayed redistricting […]