Bay Area Census Complicated by Novel Coronavirus


Along with nearly every facet of American life, the 2020 U.S. Census is being reshaped -- sometimes in complex and unforeseen ways -- by the COVID-19 coronavirus and people's response to it.

The decennial effort to count every person living in the United States kicked off last Thursday, when tens of millions of invitations to participate were sent out across the country.

But over the past few days, as local and state governments began implementing measures to slow the spread of the virus, people working on census outreach efforts have been franticly trying to find ways to ensure a full and accurate count.

"It's a really challenging time for many of us," said Stephanie Kim, who heads the census program for United Way Bay Area.

Kim's organization has partnered with the state to administer millions of dollars in grants to local, community-based organizations working to encourage as many people as possible to fill out the census forms.

Many of those organizations had planned to use the money on census-related events or for door-to-door outreach efforts in some of the Bay Area's hardest to count communities, including communities of color and immigrant and homeless populations.

The near-total lockdown of millions of Bay Area households, however, has put the brakes on any such face-to-face communication efforts.

"The good news is that the Census Bureau did build in so many ways that people can get counted from the comfort and safety of their own home," Kim said. For example, this is the first time that the census will be primarily an online experience for most households and people will also be able to fill out the forms over the phone or by using the traditional paper mailer.

By encouraging people to "self-respond" using these methods, community groups can help reduce the need for Census Bureau enumerators to physically come to homes in order to count residents.

Still, many people don't have digital devices or reliable access to broadband Internet services, don't speak one of the 13 languages in which the census questionnaire is provided or simply don't trust the government to safeguard their personal information.

These factors are exacerbated by the fact that much of the response to COVID-19 includes "social distancing" practices or, as in many Bay Area communities, shelter-in-place orders that are preventing people from accessing the information they need to understand why the census is important, that it's safe to fill out and to get help in filling out the forms in a language they actually speak.

"The in-person events were meant to reach those folks," said Julia Marks, staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, one of the United Way Bay Area's census partner organizations.

"They might not open the mail, or they don't speak English, or they're not comfortable talking to government representatives," Marks said.

In order to get around those hurdles, organizations are scrambling to increase their social media outreach, engage in more robust phone banking and redouble efforts to drop information off on doorsteps or at places where people can still gather, like supermarkets, food banks and health clinics.

While the Census Bureau has yet to announce a delay in any of its activities, Kim's organization has asked that it at least consider moving back the homeless count until after the Bay Area's shelter-in-place directive expires.

Also, the Census Bureau is working with colleges and universities to ensure their students are counted properly.

Typically, the count falls during a period of time when students are either living on campuses or in the cities where their schools are located.

But since the mass closure of American campuses, census officials expect that most of those students are now back home and so are now working with universities to make sure students understand they need to be counted as living in the cities where they go to school.

"The key message we want to make sure that goes out into community is that people can respond to the census right now, from home," Kim said.

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