COVID-19 threatens census. At stake: money, political power

At the kickoff meeting in Athens last fall, Gov. Brian Kemp outlines the stakes of the 2020 Census for members of Georgia's Complete Count Committee. File/Georgia Recorder

WASHINGTON — It’s National Census Day.

Organizations across the country are marking the occasion with webinars, virtual rallies, Twitter chats and other digital events throughout the week. April 1 is the date by which all people in U.S. households are to be counted.

But the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to make the count even more difficult than usual, which could exacerbate the inequitable distribution of resources in Georgia and other states.

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, census data are used to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to states, counties and communities for schools, roads, hospitals and other programs and services.

In 2017, Georgia received more than $24 billion from federal spending programs that relied on 2010 census data to disburse funds.

The data are also used to apportion states’ representation in Congress and in the Electoral College and to draw congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

But a full and fair accounting of millions of Georgians — not to mention hundreds of millions of Americans — is virtually impossible, even in typical census years. Some groups — such as people of coloryoung children and others — have historically been undercounted, leaving them with less access to their share of government-funded programs and services. White people, on the other hand, have been overcounted in the past, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The COVID-19 outbreak “definitely has the potential to really reduce the response rate, precisely in the communities that have the lowest response rates in the first place,” said Justin Levitt, a political science professor at California State University in Long Beach.

People reached by door-to-door visits are less likely to have internet access or check their mail and respond to it, he said, and the success rate of such in-person visits is unclear at this point.

There’s no way to predict how the pandemic is going to affect the count in these communities, according to Richard Gunther, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. But he agreed that historically undercounted groups are most likely to require in-person follow-up visits, which could be more difficult than usual due to the pandemic.

“We just don’t know what the situation is going to be at the time individuals go out to do interviews,” he said, noting that census-takers may have concerns about being exposed to the virus inside people’s homes — or vice versa.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant with expertise in the census, noted that many census operations, especially those involving in-person contact, have been delayed or suspended. “We don’t know yet if the Census Bureau will be able to hire enough workers to get the job done well or if people will be willing to open their doors essentially to a stranger,” she said.

Census data are used to apportion states’ representation in Congress and in the Electoral College and to draw congressional and state legislative district boundaries. But a full and fair accounting of millions of Georgians is even less likely than usual due to COVID-19 outbreak fears. Getty Images

Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable to an undercount, particularly those who don’t speak English, Levitt said.

The 2010 census undercounted the U.S. Hispanic population by an estimated 1.8%, the U.S. Census Bureau found in a 2012 study.

Some Latinos are mistrustful of the government collecting information on them, said Jerry Gonzalez, president of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. That distrust was exacerbated when the White House sought to add a question about immigration status to the Census, though the Supreme Court eventually blocked the question, Gonzalez said.

“I think that there is some apprehension with regards to participating, and particularly with anything with the government at this point in time, from Latinx immigrants,” he said. “However, through education and awareness about why this is important, we’ve made some significant inroads with folks.”

Those efforts have changed since COVID-19 came to U.S. shores. You’ll no longer find GALEO members addressing Spanish-speaking congregations or handing out census flyers at crowded Hispanic groceries.

“The most effective way to reach our community is face-to-face, and we were doing door-to-door, going to grocery stores, particularly where immigrants were,” Gonzalez said. “We were targeting most of our efforts in hard-to-count communities. So the challenge is now going online and making sure we do have a lot of information posted on our social media, both in English and in Spanish, particularly in Spanish, for Latino immigrants.”

The previous census also saw African Americans undercounted by 2.1%.

Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said his organization was working hard to encourage census participation before the pandemic. Each Georgia NAACP branch, college chapter and youth council sits on a countywide Complete Count Committee, local subcommittees launched by former Gov. Nathan Deal to support statewide census turnout. The state NAACP sits on the statewide Complete Count Committee.

Woodall said the Georgia NAACP’s digital-only census activism is still a work in progress, but he said the group has been blessed by the fact that 2020 is the first year Americans can fill out their census responses online.

“All they have to do is go to the website, using information provided to be able to fill it out themselves,” Woodall said. “The other thing is the beauty of social media to get messages out in a very rapid pace, that’s been a very beneficial help to get people to respond.”

People experiencing homelessness are another at-risk group, and the scheduled April 1 count of people living under bridges, in parks, in shelters and other spaces — an effort that involves in-person contact — has been put off until May 1.

‘Real money’ at stake 

The disruptions make phone and internet responses more important than ever, said Saumya Narechania, director of advocacy at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “This is the first census that can be filled out online,” he said. “Having that option as folks are cooped up is … first and foremost a good thing.”

But questions remain about how the nation’s first “online first” census will play out, especially in hard-to-reach communities with little or no high-speed internet access and among historically undercounted groups. “The same concerns as before still apply,” Narechania said.

He and other advocates are working to mitigate undercounts by explaining the implications of the census. They plan to stress that “real money” is at stake, highlight the various response options and help communities get the resources they need to drive up response rates.

The Census Bureau’s key message, meanwhile, is to reassure people that they won’t have to violate social distancing guidelines to complete the census form. “It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker,” a recent statement says.

Many Americans, it appears, are doing just that.

As of Tuesday, more than 36 percent of Americans had completed the census questionnaire. The response rate is a bit lower — about 34% — in Georgia, and most of those responses have been online.

Nationwide, the self-response rate is rising more slowly than it did over a comparable time period in 2010, according to the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York.

As of April 1, most U.S. households have received invitations sent by mail to participate in the census online or by phone, according to the bureau. Invitations include paper questionnaires in areas that are less likely to respond online.

Reminder postcards are being delivered this week to households that have not responded, and reminder letters and paper questionnaires will be sent to remaining households later in April. In response to the pandemic, the bureau has suspended all field operations until April 15, delayed door-to-door visits, and extended the response deadline by two weeks to mid-August. An official count is due to the White House and Congress in December.

“The one thing I would underline is uncertainty,” said Gunther of Ohio State University. “We’ve never been here before, and we don’t know how this would impact behavior. It’s difficult to even hazard a guess.”

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington bureau.
Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.