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Coronavirus crisis complicates in-person census outreach

Pandemic threatens to undermine efforts to count those missed by previous censuses

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Meeta Anand hates working from home just when peak census operations were meant to start.

As the New York Immigrant Coalition’s 2020 census senior fellow, Anand and thousands of others working at nonprofits, local governments and other organizations have spent months, in some cases years, getting ready to reach out, face-to-face, to specific populations and encourage them to fill out their forms. Now the coronavirus pandemic threatens to undermine their efforts to count minorities, young children and others who previous censuses have missed.

“The fact that there is an entire campaign that was predicated on in-person messaging and communication was a recognition that the vulnerable communities need that level of extra engagement and persuasion,” Anand said. 

[States scramble for their fair share of federal pandemic aid]

The Census Bureau’s 2020 strategy put a heavy emphasis on canvassing and other personal outreach through thousands of local partners like the New York Immigrant Coalition. These groups serve as “trusted messengers” trying to convince people never counted before to respond, but they’re suddenly hamstrung by a health crisis.

“It is harder to have those conversations now, and we worry this will lead to an undercount of precisely those populations that we’re trying to count,” Anand said.

There’s an irony to the situation, she said, as census data feeds into the resource allocation — like medical care funding and food stamps — needed the most right now. 

Randi Hewit chairs the grant committee for the New York State Census Equity Fund, which provides financial support to nonprofits doing census outreach. She said the committee has pushed its grantees to come up with new strategies to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

“We had a whole campaign built in community organizing, getting people out of their homes and to places like public libraries to fill out their census forms online. All of that has changed overnight,” said Hewit, who also is president of the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, Inc.

The Census Bureau announced Friday it would delay all census operations by several weeks as the government works to contain the spread of the virus. In the meantime, the agency has tried to shift its messaging to encourage more self-response online, over the phone or through paper forms.

For advocacy organizations, from the local level up to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, that means abandoning years of planning and finding new direction in the space of weeks. 

“There is no way to sugar coat it. This has now exponentially complicated the operation and everyone’s ability to reach out and engage those individuals,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund.

The hard-to-count

The Census Bureau traditionally relies on organizations like NALEO and the New York Immigrant Coalition to help reach hard-to-count communities — young children, immigrants, minorities, those in rural areas — and convince them to respond.

The agency has established partnerships with more than 300,000 organizations nationwide. These groups have predicated entire campaigns, from New York’s urban core to its more rural Finger Lakes area, on personal contact.

In the last census, Hewit’s region had an undercount of young children, which the Community Foundation planned to address through schools that have since shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Now, area school districts have started distributing census materials and coloring sheets through school lunches.

During a call with reporters last week, Tim Olson, the Census Bureau’s deputy director for operations, said the agency would work with its partners to retool outreach strategies. The agency plans on sending out new public outreach materials for partners to use in the coming weeks.

“They are working to recraft a campaign in their local communities that is really based on more social media and other tools they have that don’t require in-person outreach,” Olson said.

Still, Hewit and others worry the pandemic will cause a “deeply flawed census nationwide” with impacts that can linger.

“I’m not sure how we are going to be able to rely on the 2020 data and 10 years is too long to rely on flawed data,” she said.

That can be amplified for places already facing problems like the still-recovering Puerto Rico. The island’s nonvoting Republican resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón, said nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofits on the island have worked to retool strategies that previously relied on door-to-door outreach.

Over the last decade, the island’s population has dwindled to just over 3 million, from 3.7 million in 2010. González-Colón said the territory needs the data from the census to get the financial support it needs to rebuild from long-term economic doldrums, Hurricane Maria and earthquakes from earlier this year.

“If there is a state or territory that needs this kind of information, it is definitely Puerto Rico,” she said.

A new public face

As part of the pandemic strategy, the Census Bureau said it will dip into a $2 billion contingency fund to expand its existing advertising campaign.

González-Colón said that should provide a boost to messengers trying to get people to fill out the census at home.

“You have everybody in their houses. There is no better time to do the TV ads than when you have a captive audience to listen,” she said.

There, too, the agency’s public partners have stepped in. Vargas said NALEO is taking steps the Census Bureau can’t, like buying radio advertisements on Mexican stations that have a substantial U.S. audience. NALEO also launched a new online toolkit Monday with census information for local partners.

That won’t be enough though, Vargas said, and the Census Bureau will have to make a major pivot on its advertising campaign.

“Six weeks ago the campaign they unveiled was terrific for the country six weeks ago, not today,” Vargas said.

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