It’s not easy to get an entire country to fill out a survey. Throw in a pandemic, and most people might not even realize the 2020 U.S. Census is underway.
As of Tuesday, the self-response rate of Houstonians for the census was 47.6 percent.
The Houston City Council members that serve the area — Amy Peck in District A, Abbie Kamin in District C and Karla Cisneros in District H — echoed the same sentiment when asked why more people haven’t participated: They are more worried about keeping food on their tables.
“I think COVID-19 has presented new challenges,” Kamin said, “not just getting the word out but where people’s thoughts are.”
Because of the pandemic, the census response deadline has been pushed to mid-August. The U.S. Census Bureau has proposed to extend the response period to Oct. 31.
There are many ways to respond to the census, including filling it out online at 2020census.gov, filling out the mailer sent to your home or over the phone by calling 844-330-2020.
The council members said local participation has lagged because residents are thinking about their safety, health, job security and their children’s education, among other things.
“While it’s safe to say that many residents in District H have let the census take a backseat in their priorities as they struggle with paying rent … it’s not the only problem,” Cisneros said. “In addition to low turnout rates for Hispanic participation, there has also been a growing trend in recent years among immigrant communities across the nation to not trust the government.”
For that community, there’s fear of deportation of a loved one, though Kamin said it’s safe for undocumented immigrants to fill out the survey.
While the worry that comes with the pandemic is valid, the census count is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, which states that a count of the population be conducted once every 10 years.
Because the census is tied to redistricting and federal funding to states, inaccurate counts come with consequences.
Kamin said about $250 million could be lost if just 1 percent of the population is undercounted, or about $10,000 is lost per person not counted.
“We are risking federal dollars for programs and disaster recovery because the money is based on the number of people we have,” Peck said. “The data is also used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives and to draw congressional and state legislative districts.”
Getting the word out about the census has been met with new and unique circumstances, even more than dealing with COVID-19, which has waylaid door-to-door census takers. Kamin said she’s also encountered people still displaced from their homes due to Hurricane Harvey and people without access to the internet.
“There’s also the refusal of the state to fund any efforts to promote it,” Kamin said.
Kamin’s district had a self-response rate of 48 percent last week, and this week that number grew to 50.3 percent.
“We’re sharing updates with our super neighborhood heads, and they’re in turn working with their community heads to get the word out,” Kamin said.
Last weekend, Kamin also helped distribute more than 6,000 face masks and, along with the masks, people received census flyers in English and Spanish.
“Every time we speak to our community, we are trying to remind everyone,” Peck said.
For District H, Cisneros said she’s been working to communicate factual information to assure residents that their identity is protected and to educate them on how the census count will benefit their families.
She’s also working on a project to help people without the resources to participate in the census by providing computers to more than 500 low-income families.