In the same week that Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ordered bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms to be shut in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans got an invitation in the mail.
It asked them to respond to the 2020 Census, which, as mandated in the Constitution, determines congressional and legislative districts and how federal funds are allocated for hospitals, emergency services, public benefits and social services.
More than $675 billion are at stake for states and local governments and its distribution will be based on data collected in the decennial survey.
For the first time the Census can be completed online, but also by phone or by returning the mailed paper form. More than 11 million households have already responded, according to a U.S. Census Bureau statement Wednesday.
Addressing those early numbers, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said, “America is stepping up to shape our future and ensure families and communities are counted.”
“We encourage everyone to respond online today at 2020Census.gov,” he added.
In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Census field operations have been suspended until April 1. In late May, census takers will begin visiting homes where residents have not responded to mailings to complete the survey.
The Census Bureau says it will continue to monitor the situation, and adjust its operations according to federal, state and local health authorities. In a March 12 congressional briefing, the Census Bureau said it could extend the timeline to assure that every household gets counted. On Thursday, the nation’s governors, led by Hogan in his role as National Governors Association chairman, called for a delay in the Census process.
Reaching the hardest to count
Diane Vu runs the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships (OCP), which heads Census operations in Maryland’s largest and most diverse county, with more than one-third foreign born residents.
The Maryland Department of Planning awarded $5 million in state grants to 53 non-profits for Census outreach.
OCP received close to $600,000 for its campaign, which began last summer at festivals, and continued in libraries, community centers and schools to assure residents that the Census is easy, safe and confidential. The office has also enlisted its vast partner network of non-profits and business operations to help.
“You name it, anybody who interacts with the public was getting the Census message from us and passing it on,” Vu said.
That’s all changed. Libraries, public schools and recreation centers are closed. A large crew of trained Census ambassadors, including many retirees, who had begun fanning out in public places across the county, were told to stay home.
“This has really caused us to re-strategize, from in-person education and outreach, to an increased online and digital marketing presence,” Vu said.
Ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak, OCP had begun to expand to marketing on local radio, television and newspapers in Spanish, Chinese and Amharic, the top foreign languages spoken in the county. The effort targets the hardest to count, including non-English speakers, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and renters.
“We know that because people are home, this is a great opportunity to use that time to get into the household and blitz them with Census messaging,” Vu said.
Among OCP’s partners is CASA de Maryland, the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state. CASA is one of many groups who successfully opposed, before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a citizenship question on the Census.
Now CASA headquarters in Langley Park is strangely quiet. Its front door is locked, its service centers closed, and its staff are working from home, answering calls on its hotline for core legal, health, house, public benefits, and social services.
These closures came as CASA was working on campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of responding to the Census. Now the organization’s staffers are working on how to make an accurate count during a public health crisis.
CASA spent three months knocking on doors, and building trust, block by block, using neighbors themselves, to convey information to promote the Census, said George Escobar, CASA’s chief of programs and services.
“Now obviously you have to change those tactics. You don’t want to put people at risk at house meetings and community gatherings,” he says.
By mid-March CASA decided to move to following up with tens of thousands of people who signed a pledge to complete the Census. CASA hoped to run weekend Census clinics and offer help in all offices every day. “But with the closures, our challenge is how to work, remotely,” Escobar said.
Vu talks regularly with OCP partners like CASA, Council of Governments Working Group, the Latino Coalition and others, sharing creative ideas and best practices.
“What we’re doing across jurisdictions is not only are we increasing our outreach online and digital presence, but we’re also looking at thoughtful ways to reach out to people about COVID-19, and discuss the impact, and while we have them on the phone, talk to them about those important things, to remind them to fill out the Census.”
“If we’re talking about allocation of resources based on Census data, what better example to use than right in this moment when we’re in the midst of a health emergency, when accurate numbers matter,” she adds.
2020 Census https://2020census.gov
Maryland Department of Planning https://census.maryland.gov/Pages/default.aspx
Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/partnerships/
CASA de Maryland https://wearecasa.org
March 18 Census Bureau update https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/operational-update.html
March 12 Coronavirus/Congressional briefing https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/census-bureau-briefs-congress-on-efforts-to-address-impact-of-coronavirus-on
Rosanne Skirble is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, who served as a Census ambassador until public places were closed.