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'The Good Thing is Self-Response Hasn't Stopped': Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director on the 2020 Count Amid Coronavirus

2020 census homepage screenshot

2020 Census website to fill out the questionnaire

The U.S. Census Bureau faced a behemoth of an undertaking this year: counting each and every resident across the country’s 50 states and various territories. It’s a task that’s carried out every ten years and requires years of planning and untold levels of individual and collective effort, and can still end up being inaccurate. And all that was before the coronavirus pandemic sent the nation into disarray. 

The decennial Census count determines where and how the federal government allocates hundreds of billions in funding and determines the number of seats that states hold in the House of Representatives, making it of utmost importance for states. For New York, home to many “hard-to-count” populations and on the decline in terms of population and seats in Congress, an accurate count is all the more essential. 

The coronavirus has forced officials at all levels of government to drastically alter census operations. Field programs, planned for the second phase of the Census after the initial self-response period, have been suspended. Outreach campaigns have doubled down on messaging through digital and social media. The U.S. Census Bureau usually hires hundreds of thousands of enumerators across the country to knock on doors and follow up with households that haven’t responded. That hiring has been frozen. 

But there’s still hope. A predominantly digital methodology means the Census is easier than ever to fill out. Self-response continues and the deadline has been extended.  

In an interview on Wednesday, Jeff Behler, director for the Census Bureau's New York Regional Office, sounded a note of optimism while emphasizing that the Bureau has its work cut out for it. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

How has the coronavirus outbreak affected Census operations?

“We stopped all [hiring] because the public health and the health of our employees is of utmost importance. But the good thing is self-response hasn't stopped and that's the great thing about the 2020 Census. You can still go online, you could still fill it out, or call it in over the phone, or if you receive a paper questionnaire in that first mail-out, fill it out, mail it back in. And beginning April 8, we will be mailing paper questionnaires to every household that has yet to respond to the Census. And that's still on track. We're still able to do that. And that's the plan...until we get to the point in the environment in our communities where it's safe to start interactions again in public. Before we ever get to the point where we can knock on doors again, we're going to continue to work with our partners on getting people to self respond.”

“We're calling every applicant that has applied for a census job. We're calling as a courtesy to let them know, ‘Hey, our hiring has been suspended. You're still going to be considered. We ask for your patience, and oh by the way, have you filled out your census?”

On the importance of filling out the Census during a pandemic...

“I was just on a webinar where the Mayor of Syracuse was talking about what better way to support your community right now during this pandemic than to help out the future of our health systems, our hospitals, our emergency services by filling out your census, and ensuring your neighbors get counted, that your coworkers and people you may worship with, that they also fill out the census. That's a great way to support our communities so that we have enough hospital beds, we have enough emergency service personnel, we have enough clinics and hospitals or vaccines available based upon the true population numbers.”

Are there any encouraging signs around the early self-response, particularly in New York?

“I think New York State’s at 31.1%. That's amazing. Given that New York City is the epicenter of this whole pandemic, for roughly a third of households to go online or to call us over the phone or fill it out on paper is amazing...There's a lot a lot of counting left to do but this is a great start, and our partners and the Census Bureau, we're not pushing a pause button right now just because of this pandemic. We're reengineering the things that we can do with the resources we have to continue to push people to self respond.”

New York City came to an agreement to share homeless shelter data with the Census Bureau for the first time to aid in the count. How is that working?

“When you get a city like New York that was able to pull that data together from so many different shelters, that's huge. Because especially at a time like this, shelters will not open their doors to us in a month from now or maybe even two months from now because the pandemic may still be there. So it just shows the urgency and the willingness that New York City has to ensure they get a complete and accurate count.”

What about the street homeless?

“Actually we would have gone out at 12:01 a.m. this morning and conducted a homeless count for people who aren't staying in shelters, who aren’t staying in group homes. These are people who are living in the woods or in the forest or on a park bench. So we'll still be conducting that operation. The timing of that operation's still yet to be determined. We have to figure that out because we can't go out at a time where the public's health is at risk.”

On counting university students that live off campus...

“Just about every school in our region…has gone to virtual school for the rest of the semester. So many kids, both on campus and off campus, now live at home with their parents, whether that's in a different state or whether it's a different city within the state. We need to make sure those students get counted where they usually live or stay at college. So we're working with college universities. We feel confident in the way we count students who live in college and in dormitories. It’s those off campus students that we're [concerned about].”

[You can fill out the 2020 Census here]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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