Outbreak disrupts 2020 Census plans

  • The Census Bureau provides U.S. households with a number of ways to confirm the validity of a survey, so be wary of scams and check before sending sensitive personal information. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS) Richard B. Levine

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/2/2020 9:43:31 AM
Modified: 4/2/2020 9:43:21 AM

U.S. Census Bureau officials have shifted timelines for 2020 Census operations and anticipate hiring more census-takers in New Hampshire and nationwide in preparation for intense canvassing later this year. 

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, federal Census officials announced last week that field operations and hiring procedures would be suspended until at least April 1. Communities and nonprofits in New Hampshire have cancelled public outreach events and other planned face-to-face efforts to promote completion of the Census questionnaire, as millions of Americans practice extreme social distancing.

Bill Maddocks, a 2020 Census consultant hired by N.H. Funders Forum, a consortium of charitable foundations in the state, said the novel coronavirus outbreak brings into sharper focus the critical need for updated Census data. The 2020 Census, which kicked off earlier this month, will be used to allocate federal assistance to states across more than 40 health, human services, and infrastructure programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, for the next 10 years. 

“It’s so critical that everybody take this seriously and understand that if we’re going to grow as a state, we can’t do that using 2010 figures,” Maddocks said.

Without an accurate count, states and local communities stand to potentially lose substantial federal funding. 

The federal government allocates about $3.7 billion annually to New Hampshire, Maddock said. Using 2016 figures, Maddocks estimates that each person not counted during the decennial census would reduce that annual total by $3,700. Because the census only happens every 10 years, as required under the Constitution, those funds would be lost to the state for a whole decade.

To help ensure an accurate count that includes hard-to-reach population groups, the U.S. Census Bureau has already hired 600,000 field workers nationally. Those workers are scheduled to begin visiting households that have not completed the Census questionnaire in late May, federal officials said during a March 20 press briefing. The completion date for the 2020 Census has been pushed back from July 31 to August 14. 

In New Hampshire, about 8,000 census-takers have been hired, out of an original goal of 13,000. Job applications are still being accepted online, Census officials said, as more field workers may be needed to facilitate a condensed timeline for canvassing. 

Meanwhile, Maddocks said, municipalities and nonprofits are recalibrating Census outreach efforts based on a new reality. 

“Plan A was that we would have events and do a lot of direct outreach,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of that has gone by the wayside with social distancing.”

April 1 marks national Census Day, but a planned kickoff event at City Hall in Nashua has been canceled. The N.H. Funders Forum, in partnership with Granite State United Way, is reassessing priorities for a mini-grant program designed to support public outreach efforts, which must now move online. 

In Manchester, the Organization for Refugee and Immigration Success (ORIS) is turning to the online platform WhatsApp to tell the families it serves how to complete the Census questionnaire online and why it’s important, Maddocks said. 

Reaching immigrant and refugee populations is particularly important in New Hampshire, because they have been a high-growth population group in the state over the past 10 years. However, fears over immigration enforcement have traditionally had a negative effect on response rates, Maddocks said. 

“Giving your information to the government while another branch of the government is deporting your loved ones – it’s a hard sell,” he said. “It’s been really hard to get that message across.” 

In a March 18 statement, ICE announced that it was shifting its enforcement operations during the outbreak to focus on those who pose a risk to public safety or are subject to detention on criminal grounds. 

College students represent another population that has been historically hard to count at Census time. This year, those issues are compounded by outbreak-related campus closures earlier this month that sent many students home to their parents. 

Federal Census officials said they are reaching out to colleges and universities to promote online submission of group data on students who normally would be living on campus. Even if students are counted at their family homes, they said, Census data systems are designed to recognize duplicates from the lists colleges provide. 

College towns are also a major focus for census-takers in New Hampshire, where Henniker and Durham, the homes of New England College and the University of New Hampshire, respectively, saw lower than expected counts during the 2010 Census.

More than 18.6 million households, representing nearly 16.7 percent of Americans, have already responded to the 2020 Census. In New Hampshire, 14.7 percent of households have responded. The majority of those respondents have completed the questionnaire online, which the Census Bureau encourages all Americans to do at their earliest convenience at 2020census.gov. 

“We’re hoping it’s something people will do as part of their wait-it-out activities,” Maddocks said.

These stories are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

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