Census Advocates Spread the Word on New Online Forms

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March letters will kick off the decennial count.

This article originally appeared on Stateline.

With only weeks remaining until the 2020 census count begins, states and cities are scrambling to make sure residents know what to expect when they open their mail in mid-March.

From teach-ins in New York City libraries to mailbox-themed ads in Alabama, local officials are trying to spread the message that it’s both important and safe to go online and respond.

From March 12-20, the U.S. Census Bureau will mail a letter to most homes asking residents to log on to the agency’s website or call customer service representatives and answer basic questions. Those who don’t respond will get paper forms in the mail and eventually a knock on the door.

It’s a departure from previous counts, when homes got a paper form first, and a calculated risk aimed at saving billions of dollars by hiring fewer people to process paper forms. But the new format, along with the added suspicion that comes with a contentious election year and the Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question may make it harder to ensure high response rates.

“The Census Bureau has an uphill battle to be heard above the din, with the added challenge of trying to separate itself from administration policies that could depress participation in some communities,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Connecticut-based consultant on census issues.

Communities are preparing ad blitzes, adding public computers and hiring advisers to help explain the process, given the congressional seats and billions in federal funds at stake.

“We have a major challenge on our hands explaining to the public that only about 20% of addresses will receive a paper form in the mail [immediately],” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. The group is setting up a toll-free phone line, 1-877-EL-CENSO, to answer questions from Latinos who don’t want to call the toll-free census number in mailings.

Roughly 20% of U.S. homes will get paper forms with the first mailing because they are in rural areas or places that are disproportionately elderly, making them less likely to have internet access. A few areas that need special attention, such as disaster-affected or remote areas, may get in-person visits.

nationwide map created by the City University of New York (CUNY) is available to see how neighborhoods will be counted. The university’s Center for Urban Research first created the maps for the 2010 census to help philanthropic foundations and civil rights organizations target census awareness campaigns in hard-to-count areas.

Latinos are especially likely to prefer paper and phone responses instead of the internet, according to a survey by NALEO. Latinos are also more likely than other groups to depend on friends and neighbors for information, the survey found.

Some areas that had low response rates in 2010 are making special efforts to get the word out and minimize confusion. Brooklyn, New York, had a 67% response rate in 2010, the lowest for any urban area except hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, where it was 66%.

Brooklyn’s public libraries had city-sponsored teach-ins in November and February to get out the word and enlist residents to spread information to neighbors and friends, said Amy Mikel, manager of civic engagement at the library.

“A lot of the questions were about the privacy factor: ‘Why should I tell the government anything about myself?’ That’s always going to be a big factor,” Mikel said. “It’s always easier to explain in terms of how it impacts people — it’s going to impact the decision about where a grocery store goes, or where a new bus line goes.”

The hardest work is yet to come, as residents get mailings and come to libraries for help with computers and forms, she said.

“The Census Bureau has its own national campaign, but there’s still a lot of work to be done at the community level,” Mikel said.

Like other community census outreach programs and the Census Bureau itself, the Brooklyn library will monitor response rates as completed forms come in and can react accordingly. The Census Bureau will provide that information and it will also be available on the CUNY map.

“It’ll be like, ‘Why does this neighborhood have such a low response rate?’ We’ll need to go and work with the library in that neighborhood, and really try to get at the root of what’s going on there,” Mikel said.

In Alabama, the city of Opelika near Auburn University, with about 30,000 people, is planning mailbox-themed advertising in local media for mid-March to remind people to watch for census mailings, said Leigh Kreling, community relations officer for the city.

The city is planning extra help in Spanish and Korean to make sure new immigrants are counted. The Lee County area, which includes Opelika and Auburn University, was targeted for special outreach efforts by state research that showed a large number of residents were unsure whether they would respond to the census.

Sacramento, California, is planning a Make Black Count campaign aimed at the African American community starting March 20, when mailings should have arrived. It will include a weekend of storefront pop-ups and church programs, with 150 volunteers sharing information, said Laurie Slothower, public information officer for Sacramento County.

California has been teaching census awareness in schools as part of its Count Me In campaign and will have weeklong “awareness weeks” to teach the history and value of census counts starting March 23, said Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count Census 2020.

State and local outreach workers, as in other states, will run Questionnaire Assistance Centers and kiosks where people can turn with questions. The centers are also on the CUNY map.

Census letters will be only in English or English and Spanish, so one concern is reaching people who don’t understand those languages, said Mary Jo Hoeksema of the Census Project, a public-private partnership dedicated to census outreach.

The count will depend on outreach to let people know how to get help in alternative languages if they don’t understand the mailings. The Census Bureau is publishing guides and videos in dozens of languages, and online forms can be filled out in 13 languages.

Outreach also will be important to educate people who live in institutional settings — college students in dorms, nursing home residents and prisoners — about how they will be counted.

Students in dorms won’t get mailings, though they may get a form distributed by dorm representatives. Students living off campus can expect a letter in the mail.

“Students might be very engaged and know about the mailings and then be surprised they didn’t get one,” said Lowenthal, which could cause confusion if they go online to fill out a form themselves.