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Coalition Pushes for Census Participation Amid COVID-19 Concerns

Judging by social media, every day is some sort of national holiday, be it to honor dogs, wine or pancakes. Today, however, is actually Census Day, and though it’s not as fun as a hashtag for sharing pictures of puppies or pastries, it has real-life implications for underserved communities locally and across the state.

While census statistics will be used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of funding for North Carolina over the next 10 years, including economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak, the communities that need that funding the most are also the ones most-often undercounted in the census. That includes communities of color, rural communities and people struggling with homelessness. 

The government began snail-mailing traditional census forms for the country’s 24th census on March 12, though for the first time, participants can answer the nine census questions online in 2020 (Clink link to do so yourself). Census-takers will also continue to collect data over the telephone. While those three options are known as “self-response,” there are usually hundreds of field workers who follow up with households who don’t participate. The COVID-19 outbreak, however, has delayed the activation of those field workers, which could have an impact on those numbers. 

The NC Counts Coalition was formed to bolster our state’s response numbers for this year’s census, and on Wednesday morning members of the coalition held a virtual press conference to discuss how they are stepping up efforts to push for more self-response participation in light of the ongoing pandemic.

“The coronavirus is disrupting most of NC Counts Coalition’s education and outreach program for the census,” said Stacey Carless, executive director of NC Counts Coalition. “Our programs are based on data, touches and relationships. It is about using data to determine where to target outreach, and then going into the communities highlighted by the data to build relationships with community members and educate and engage them for 2020 census participation. Our organization and our partners are having to pivot and utilize other tactics, such as online and digital outreach and phone banks.”

NC Demography, a part of the coalition, created an interactive map of North Carolina’s hard-to-count communities that weighs the risk factors for each area, and a look at Mecklenburg County shows a pattern all too familiar to longtime Mecklenburg residents.

The map measures the risks of a low census count based on the percentage of residents who are minorities, foreign-born, under 5 years old, or lack internet access, all of which have led to underrepresentation in past censuses. A look at Mecklenburg shows a dark blue crescent of residents most likely to go uncounted in the census surrounding a wedge of residents in south Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods that are deemed most likely to be counted. Check here for more statistics about this year’s census response in North Carolina from NC Demography.

The darkest blue census tracts in this map are most likely to be not counted in the census.

It’s estimated that the 2010 census missed 2.1% of black people, 1.5% of Latinos, 1.1% of renters, and 4.6% of children below the age of 5. Following increased efforts by the Trump administration to track down undocumented immigrants and controversy regarding a citizenship question included on a test census circulated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, it’s feared that Latino participation residents may drop dramatically this year.

“We have seen fear in the Latino community because people think they can be negatively affected by sharing their personal information with the census,” said Carolina Diaz, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition. “Lots of Latino-based nonprofits took the lead and created campaigns to educate people about the census, hopefully we see the results from it today. On social media, I have seen some community advocates stating that they don’t trust the government and their family was not completing the census.”

Lindy Studds, a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau based in the Atlanta field office, stressed on Wednesday that census data is protected by strict confidential laws and that all personal information will be kept confidential for more than 70 years. The citizenship question was also removed following last year’s controversy. 

Diaz also pointed out that members of the Latino population prefer personal interaction rather than rely on technology to solve issues, which may affect participation numbers even further during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Alaska, census workers continued canvassing efforts while following 6-foot social distancing guidelines for some time, but all field operations are now suspended through April 15 at the earliest.

While this year’s census will be used to make decisions about allocating government funds through the next decade, a more urgent matter will be at play as lawmakers have already approved more than $1 trillion dollars in federal aid to help confront the economic devastation that the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to have on our economy.

“The same communities that are often undercounted in the census are the same communities that are more likely to feel the impact of a down economy and reduced services,” Carless said. “As we bounce back post-coronavirus, we are going to need accurate census data to ensure that North Carolina receives its fair share of $1.5 trillion in federal funds that will support programs and services for healthy families and vibrant communities.”

Stats from the NC Counts Coalition show what’s at stake for the new census. In 2017 alone, North Carolina received nearly $24 billion in federal funding, including $11.1 billion for health programs, $4.05 billion for education, $3.06 billion for food assistance programs, $1 billion for highway planning and construction, $370 million for housing assistance, and $267 million for transit.

In a state that has grown in population by 10% since the last census in 2010, the ever-changing demographics are key to knowing how annual funding will be spread out and allocated to communities that need it the most.

A census tracker shows that countrywide participation lags behind where it was at this time in 2010.

However, North Carolina already lags behind other states during the first month of data collection, and U.S. participation as a whole is far behind where it was at this time in 2010.

As of March 30, North Carolina ranked 39 out of 51 (including Washington D.C.) in self-response rates, with 30% of N.C. households responding compared to 33% nationally, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Also, 25% of N.C. households have responded online compared to 29% nationally, a gap that only increased over the last week.

Our state’s census count also has political implications. Currently, North Carolina has 13 representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives but could potentially gain a seat with a complete and accurate 2020 Census count. If that happens, North Carolina’s congressional districts would have to be redrawn, which would also lead to an increase in the number of electoral votes North Carolina has in presidential elections.

“As we grapple with COVID-19, we must not forget the census,” Carless said Wednesday. “We only get one shot every 10 years to get it right, and NC Counts Coalition and our partners remain committed to counting every single individual in North Carolina.”

Though April 1 is the point in time at which the U.S. Census Bureau hopes to properly count and track the demographics of the U.S. population, participation will extend through August 14. Learn more here. 

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