The census has been challenged by COVID and time— luckily, counties have a plan
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The pandemic and unemployment mean Americans need county government more than ever, but maintaining services is already a challenge – and the pandemic’s blow to the 2020 census could hit county governments for 10 years.

Counties and local governments depend on the census for funding from – and representation in – Congress and state legislatures. But 100 million Americans – more than a third -- haven’t yet responded, and a new approach is needed. 

In April, four former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau issued a comment on the Bureau’s original decision to extend the deadline for field data collection to Oct. 31, 2020, writing, “The genius of the census has always been finding a Plan B when conditions rule out Plan A. For 2020, Plan B includes a schedule adjustment.”

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The Census Bureau’s plan B, is to knock on the doors of addresses that haven’t answered – but without congressional action, the bureau is on a tight schedule to end the count next month. On top of that, the Pew Research Center found that four out of ten who haven’t responded would not even open their door to a census employee.

So even the best-run counties with the most aggressive census outreach programs are missing more than 20 percent of their populations. As ever, rural, urban and border counties are missing far more. The consequences would lock in underfunding and budget challenges for a decade, making it harder to get our communities needed funding for schools, infrastructure and health care.

But now, the Census Bureau has been prevented by the pandemic from completing Plan A, and Plan B is in peril as well. Fortunately, local governments, working with new technologies, have devised a workable, cost-efficient Plan C. If the census can’t connect with residents at the doorstep, we need a way for residents to connect to the census.

We’re seeing impressive results from a new program that uses location and other data from mobile phones to target ads and content that generates clicks and calls to Census workers. 

By detecting the phones’ language settings the system can deliver ads for their preferred language. Content is delivered not only on phones but also on desktop devices, tablets and TVs.

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A recent one-week test of this technology by the city of Atlanta ran a million banner and video impressions, targeting English and Spanish speakers alike, to generate over 3,000 call-in census responses, using images and videos of Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms and the late Rep. John LewisJohn LewisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden goes on offense Congress must bolster voting rights and invest in the protection of our election system Ginsburg to lie in state in Capitol on Friday MORE (D-Ga.). The program, called ATLCounts, generated 3,210 call-in census responses that increased the Atlanta Census Count by over 1,000 residents. Based on Fulton County’s estimated $2,300 in increased federal spending per person counted, and a cost per call of $19.20, the result is a 116X annual return on each dollar invested.

“The door-to-door canvassing stalled by COVID-19 is supplemented with digital outreach that can be targeted with surgical precision—even reaching traditionally hard to count communities such as non-English speakers or the homelessness,” says Roger Alan Stone of Advocacy Data, who conducted the Atlanta test.

At a time when local governments are seeing their budgets stretched beyond all expectations and projections, the cost-effectiveness of these methods is a strong recommendation. Another advantage is the ability to help the census fulfill its most fundamental mandate—to reach everyone, regardless of language, income or status.

The technology being used in Atlanta and in other localities has built tools and pioneered techniques to reach even transient populations and people off the grid, from remote mountain cabins and lake cottages with no fixed addresses to parks, wooded areas, tent cities and shopping center parking lots where people experiencing homelessness sleep or have slept.

The coronavirus has created social and economic conditions that are accelerating racial, financial and geographic disadvantages for millions of Americans. They’re in a race with a starting line that’s different for those who’ve been counted by the census, with others left far behind.

In this election season, we’re hearing a lot about efforts to ensure that every vote counts—as we should. The electoral franchise is a bedrock of our democracy. But it’s just as fundamental to our national identity that every person is counted in the census as well. We must apply every resource we can muster to complete the census as accurately and fairly as possible. No one must be invisible, left behind or placed out of reach.

In the post-pandemic future that we all hope will come soon, our nation will be busy rebuilding, restructuring and rethinking old assumptions. We’ll need to gather all our strength, all our resources, and all our populations to pull together. No one can be left behind then, and no one can be counted out now.

Michael Griffin is Executive Director of County Executives of America.