Story at a glance
- In-person efforts are a critical part of the census count, reaching remote and often undercounted populations.
- Advocates for minority communities are concerned about the consequences of the pandemic for their efforts to get out the count.
- Some campaigns are adapting their methods as more and more Americans are under stay-at-home orders.
April 1 is Census Day. It's not the deadline, as some may believe, but it is the date by which every American should have received an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. It's also the date you refer to when reporting where you live and how many people live in your household.
But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has suspended field operations until at least April 15. And while many Americans will respond online for the first time, as well as by phone or by mail, the in-person efforts are crucial to reaching remote and often undercounted populations.
“It couldn’t have snowballed at a worse time,” consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal told the Guardian, explaining that in the days past April 1 it becomes more difficult for the bureau to collect accurate data.
The census is used for everything from redistricting and federal funding to business decisions and the distribution of national resources during emergencies — including the one with which the United States is currently dealing.
"When you think about the money [the federal government] is putting in the stimulus package, the money the federal government is giving to states, how they know where to send supplies, it’s all from the census," said Christina Hu, the director of civic engagement for the Taiwanese American Citizens League (TACL).
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Hu, one of the organizer’s of the TACL’s census campaign, is shifting her focus from now-cancelled in-person events to virtual happy hours and social media campaigns. On their Instagram account, the "Write in Taiwanese" campaign has been posting photos of young Taiwanese Americans to bring positivity to their followers' feeds as Asians across the world are seeing increased racism due to virus-related fear.
"Even before March, even before anything was posted [in New York] about the outbreak, I did feel more nervous as an Asian if I coughed on the subway,” Hu said.
Instead, she wants to keep the focus on the community. With events cancelled through May, the TACL is redirecting about $2,000 in funds for a social media campaign encouraging followers to participate by posting photos that go along with weekly themes based around the census. Each week's winner will be awarded $500 to donate to a nonprofit, charity or community organization of their choice.
In some communities, however, a lack of internet access is a major barrier to census efforts.
“It’s imperative with social distancing constraints that people respond to the census online but marginalized communities often lack internet access,” said David Strich from the Planning Department of the Samish Indian Nation, whose members are scattered across states and international waters. “We risk being substantially undercounted if census workers are unable to safely go door to door for outreach.”
The New Mexico Native Census Coalition was planning events at public libraries and other community centers for community members to access the online form. Now, they're directing those without digital access to respond by phone or return the form by mail. Still other parts of the Native American community live in remote locations usually reached by on-the-ground efforts by the census bureau.
"We are dedicated to continue to offer support, resources and strategies to ensure an accurate count while understanding that our people, our families, elders and children are our priority," the coalition said in a statement.
At the same time, Native Americans are uniquely threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. So far the Indian Health Services (IHS) have reported 174 positive cases of COVID-19 tested at their centers. But one-sixth of 423 health facilities serving Native Americans are run by the IHS, and IHS Chief Medical Officer Michael Toedt told Politico the number is likely an underrepresentation. And as the virus spreads, its growing effect on the census will have ramifications for years to come.
“There probably isn’t going to be anyone that hasn’t been touched by this,” Hu said.
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