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Census to start door-knocking after pandemic pause

Agency to provide PPE for workers heading to homes that haven't responded to 2020 form

Census workers will start knocking on doors of households that haven't completed the 2020 questionnaire.
Census workers will start knocking on doors of households that haven't completed the 2020 questionnaire. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Census Bureau will plan a “final push” outreach effort this month to encourage many communities that haven’t responded to the census to do so, the agency said Wednesday during an update of plans amid a coronavirus pandemic that continues to spike in pockets throughout the country.

“The campaign will be nationwide but will have extra emphasis and resources spent … in the lowest responding areas throughout the nation,” Tim Olson, the Census Bureau’s associate director, said during a call with reporters.

Households that haven’t responded could get a knock on the door from one of more than 500,000 census takers late this month in 12 regions across the country, including the six areas announced during the call: Hartford, Conn., State College, Pa., Evansville, Ind., Wichita, Kan., Tacoma, Wash., and the Crystal City section of Arlington, Va.

The Census Bureau had paused most of its efforts in March to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, causing a delay that the agency said will force it to miss its statutory Dec. 31 deadline to complete the once-a-decade count. 

More than 61 percent of the country’s households have responded to the count but the agency’s largest efforts remain, said Census Bureau associate director Al Fontenot.

“This has been a challenging time as the virus ebbs and flows and increases in some parts of the country,” Fontenot told reporters during the call.

Census results are used to apportion the 435 House seats among all 50 states. They also drive more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually. Advocacy groups including the National Urban League have raised concerns that the census count may miss a disproportionate amount of minority communities throughout the country because of disruptions due to the pandemic. 

The organization released a report Wednesday noting that large cities with diverse populations have had lower response rates to the census so far. Urban League CEO Marc Morial said the agency has not done enough outreach to many communities affected by the pandemic.

“We’ll have structural exclusion [with an undercount]. You will have urban communities politically underrepresented because of a bad count and you will have community not get their just share of federal and in some instances state dollars,” Morial said.

As the start of the full door-knocking campaign in August approaches, Fontenot said census staff will make decisions based on coronavirus data at a local level.

“We’re planning for areas that will be more difficult to get into at this point in time,” Fontenot said.

The door-knocking efforts will continue through October. The agency will also conduct counts of the homeless in the fall, he said.

On a larger scale, the agency has kicked its hiring efforts into full gear. Olson told reporters that 900,000 people have accepted job offers, 700,000 of them have gotten fingerprinted and 500,000 have passed background checks.

Olson said the agency has planned on over-hiring, allowing employees to start operations later in other parts of the country, where virus outbreaks are worse, and still finish on time.

Additionally the agency has purchased 2.4 million cloth masks, 14 million gloves, 21 million disinfectant wipes, 3.6 million hand sanitizer bottles and 48,000 gallons of sanitizer, he said. He added that the agency has mandated masks for staff and forbids them from entering a person’s home, which was allowed in prior censuses.

Census officials have requested a deadline extension to deliver new congressional apportionment data to April and an extension for new mapmaking data to July. The House passed the deadline extension as part of a coronavirus package (HR 6800) last month, but the Senate has yet to act on the package.

“We are past the window of being able to get those counts by this date at this point,” Fontenot said of the deadline.

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