Gift card giveaways, hyperlocal social media advertising and handing out flyers at food banks — they’re among the efforts Howard Shih and hundreds of other advocates have strung together to encourage participation in the national census over the past several months.
The coronavirus pandemic scrambled well-established plans of local nonprofits and other “trusted voices” to reach hard-to-count people throughout the country — plans the Census Bureau counts on to complete the 2020 count. Advocates like Shih, executive director for research and policy at the Asian American Federation in New York City, said census data is key to keeping track of the growing Asian population, but the pandemic has not made things easy.
“The community was already feeling isolated, feeling wary, feeling economically pressured. So it is not surprising the census was not a priority for them,” Shih said on a census advocate call last week.
Shih said his group’s outreach efforts can’t rely on records like voter registration to find these historically undercounted groups since so many in New York’s Asian American community are immigrants. Instead, they’ve tapped churches, ethnic grocery stores and native-language media like Chinese newspapers to get the word out.
Others in the city have started handing out face masks with census information and organized gift card raffles. They’ve emphasized ways the census is used to help with health care funding. But Shih and others worry they will not persuade enough people in vulnerable populations to participate in a count used to distribute 435 congressional seats and more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding annually.
Nationally, the response rate stands at 61.6 percent, according to the Census Bureau, but is considerably lower in some urban neighborhoods and rural areas.
That could have serious consequences at the local level, according to a report issued Monday by Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The staff report emphasized that an undercount in New York City similar to the one after the 2010 census may cost the city more than $10 million in federal funds each year across several programs.
Democrats also worry they’re not getting enough insight into how the Census Bureau plans to adapt to the pandemic. Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said the agency has not provided the staff briefings requested by lawmakers wanting to learn how census operations have been adjusted.
“It is hard for us to make an assessment without being able to contact the people who are doing the work,” Maloney said. “We would like to verify they are doing everything right. They are not allowing us to do that.”
To address some of the disruptions, the Census Bureau has asked Congress for a 120-day deadline extension and shuffled several operations after a several-month delay to tamp down the spread of coronavirus.
The agency plans to continue accepting self-responses through October and will soft-launch door-to-door counts in July before rolling out that effort nationally in August. Additionally, the agency has expanded its $500 million paid advertising campaign by at least $160 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this month.
States step in
A number of states have also stepped in to supplement the Census Bureau effort. California, which devoted more than $180 million to the effort, has increased outreach efforts to its Hispanic, Asian American and Native American populations over the past several months. The state has also mobilized a network of local organizations.
In other states, census-focused organizations like Fair Count, founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have taken the outreach effort into their own hands. The group says it is conducting a modified bus tour through Georgia, concentrating on its more rural southern counties.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Texas and a handful of other places that lack such funds and state-level support. In these areas, devoting manpower for census outreach can get more difficult as the process drags on, said Elizabeth O’Hara, co-chairwoman of the Paso Del Norte Complete Count Committee in El Paso, Texas.
“Not having the backing from the state of Texas, which gives lip service to backing communities like ours, is getting really old for communities like El Paso,” O’Hara said.
The coronavirus pandemic may not let up enough for community groups to conduct the in-person outreach they originally planned last year, O’Hara said. In the meantime, groups continue efforts like hyperlocal social media advertising, creating rivalries between local neighborhoods and outreach through food banks.
Many organizations are also acting in an element of self-interest. Local businesses want better data about their communities because accurate counts result in more funding for local hospitals and the like. Others really depend on the census for federal support, O’Hara said.
El Paso has grown massively in the past decade, and there are rural areas in the eastern area of the county that need a good count to justify build-outs of water, sewer and electric utilities.
“We’ve got to show the federal government we do have areas of population here. We need to run the water lines, we need to run power lines, we need to run gas lines,” O’Hara said. “We know there are people out here, and they should have access to the educational tools, the medicinal tools, the utilities that a lot of people who live in a more urban area have access to.”