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COVID-19 to impact local 2020 U.S. Census effort

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

This past week in Austin two big initiatives took place nearly simultaneously – the start of the 2020 U.S. Census and the indefinite extension of the emergency disaster declaration in response to COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is having an impact on the census count.

Mariana Salazar, who is the Census 2020 project director at United Way for Greater Austin, told the Austin Monitor in an email that it remains unclear how profoundly the public health measures taken by the city and the county will affect the census effort. However, in light of the current response to the pandemic, census outreach strategies will need to change.

The census efforts for 2020 relied largely on local gatherings and community events at which volunteers planned to set up mobile census questionnaire stations. According to Salazar, upcoming events for the next two weeks have now been canceled, postponed or changed to virtual meetings. This includes libraries, which are closed from March 16-29.

City demographer Ryan Robinson, who is working with the census, told the Monitor that Austin’s public libraries were arranging to have census workers with questionnaires at each branch, and volunteers in Travis County were scheduled to attend community events with mobile questionnaire stations. Now, with libraries shuttered, AISD extending its spring break closure and other community facilities closing their doors to the public, Robinson said the crescendo of launch efforts that were intended to jump-start the count in Travis County are jeopardized. “I’m nervous at this point, but I tend to be kind of a worrywart,” he said.

John Lawler, the Census 2020 program manager in Austin/Travis County, was more optimistic. He explained to the Monitor that the census bureau has been coordinating for months with local grassroots organizations to develop an infrastructure geared toward communicating with hard-to-count community members. “What we really need to do is shift this energy to a digital space,” he said.

This year, the traditional in-person and telecommunications methods for gathering a population tally will be supplemented for the first time by an online component. Although the digital census questionnaire can facilitate the outreach process safely as the nation contends with COVID-19, its novelty leaves the method vulnerable to user error and access restrictions.

In Travis County, Lawler said, “It’s going to make it more difficult for some folks.” However, he noted that the majority of the county has home access to the internet.

Nevertheless, those who lack internet access will fall into the category of hard-to-reach populations.

Reaching hard-to-count community members, including the Hispanic, African American, Asian American and LGBTQ+ populations was already going to be a challenge for census workers. Generally, Robinson said those community members are counted through door-to-door outreach, which can lead to imperfect information due to fears regarding immigration status, households that are larger than what is permitted under lease agreements, or mistrust of the government. Now, he said, fear of sickness “is going to put an added onus with any interaction they have with a stranger.”

As strategies and campaigns are upended, Travis County and Austin are actively engaging in contingency planning.

“Even amidst this crisis, I’m confident we will rapidly adjust our outreach efforts to ensure a complete count,” said Salazar. Canvassing is shifting to leaving door hangers, sending postcards or distributing flyers at clinics, grocery stores and other essential locations. Events are transitioning to virtual meetings and census workers are relying more on digital strategies like social media, texting campaigns and phone banks to gather accurate data. Lawler said digital ads and videos featuring local community leaders are already created and ready to be distributed.

Despite the unprecedented challenge presented by COVID-19, the U.S. Census Bureau will continue counting. In Travis County, Lawler said right now “we are trying to plan for the next two weeks” and that both volunteers and staff are taking it day by day. The census count will continue until July 31, which he said will provide time to adjust outreach strategies.

Accurate population numbers are critical for Travis County because they will affect the next decade of politics and planning by dictating the amount of federal funding funneled into the area as well as the total political representation that Texas has in Washington.

A complete count can even benefit the community in the event of a pandemic. “COVID-19 reminds us of the very importance of being counted,” said Salazar. “Knowing how many of us live in our cities allows us to more effectively and efficiently respond to crises like this one.”

Photo by Jonathan Cutrer made available through a Creative Commons license.

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