By Christi Zamarripa
COVID-19 is affecting every aspect of our lives. Like many of you, I haven’t been able to visit my community center, public library or see my friends in person since early March. And, just like all of us, the U.S. Census Bureau is grappling with the pandemic too.
The bureau announced significant extensions regarding its 2020 operations and requested delays for the release of census data. The bureau moved its response deadline from July 31 to Oct. 31 and hoped to have at least 60% of households respond on their own before the start of door-to-door visits, also known as nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) operations. Today, the national response rate is 60.3% and, because of the virus and census delays, NRFU operations haven’t started yet. Does that mean we are slightly ahead of the game or behind the eight ball?
The numbers are telling us that self-response rates are good, but not for everyone. Those historically hard-to-count groups are still hard to count today. Native Americans, people of color, lower income households and more are still posting low response rates.
The bureau, outreach groups and census advocates are attempting to reach these groups with flyers in takeout food containers, new social media campaigns and Zoom meetings to bring people’s attention back to the census. Is this creativity working?
It’s hard to grab the attention of someone who has just lost his or her job, is working long hours as an essential worker or is struggling in general with isolation and fear.
Still, an accurate census is vital for everyone. Around $1.5 trillion in federal funds are distributed annually to the states based on formulas that rely on census data. These funds support health initiatives, roads, schools and other essential programs.
Right now, states are using 2010 census data to figure out how and where COVID-19 relief funds should be distributed. It’s easy to see how the 2020 data will be used similarly for the next decade. An accurate and complete census count is more important than ever.
Self-response rates can be found on both the bureau’s self-response map and CUNY’s “Hard to Count” map. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska currently have the highest response rates.
A little friendly competition between states or cities on response rates might be fun. For instance, North River has bragging rights in North Dakota because the city has a 100% response rate. In Kentucky, Broeck Pointe and Strathmoor Manor are leading the pack, but Fox Chase and Lincolnshire are closing in. As we round the backstretch, which city will win, place or show?
Fortunately, this is one of those competitions where everyone can win. And everyone could use one of those right now!
Christi Zamarripa is a policy associate with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.