How will the coronavirus affect the 2020 Census?
The U.S. Census bureau has made a variety of changes to its plans in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that in response to the national COVID-19 outbreak it would suspend all field operations until April 1.

For 90 years, the first day in April has been designated “Census Day” by the bureau, the day when counting is supposed to begin in earnest. Millions of households respond early. But Wednesday the bureau canceled its remaining face-to-face education and motivation programs — which are designed to encourage early responses — through the end of the month.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” said U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham.

The announcement came after a statement over the weekend heralded a host of changes to the agency’s plans to get an accurate count.

Vilcia Rodriguez, the program manager for San Jose’s Census 2020 office, said the changes are “worrisome, but expected.”

The city had to delay its own plans to promote the census, Rodriguez said, including placing digital kiosks in libraries, community centers and other public buildings — many of which are closed until further notice — and its own mobile questionnaire assistance program focused on local community and religious groups.

Rodriguez says she understands the health crisis demands adjustments not just to daily life, but even to the institution that determines political representation for the next decade, and decides how communities receive billions of dollars in federal funding.

But the thought that keeps the city’s census manager up at night is whether the agency will be prepared to respond to the next health crisis if an undercount of San Jose’s population robs it of millions of dollars in federal disaster relief funds.

“Everyone is focused on COVID-19, so Census 2020 is sort of in the background for now,” Rodriguez told San José Spotlight Wednesday. “But if we don’t have a complete and accurate count, how can we get the resources to prepare and respond to the next local disaster when it happens?”

The bureau said it is delaying its mobile questionnaire assistance program “at events and locations where people naturally gather,” until April 13. The agency is also delaying its early non-response followup program until April 23. The homeless count, which had been scheduled for the three days leading up to Census Day, has been delayed a month until April 29 through May 1.

The agency is also making changes to the ways it counts residents in group quarters, such as college dormitories, nursing homes, halfway houses and prisons. Those adjustments are being made to limit face-to-face contact and ensure people are counted in the proper census tracts. Bureau criteria counts college students where they go to school — not at home, or wherever they staying during the Bay Area’s shelter in place order.

The county’s shelter in place order has also impacted census-related activities planned by local community organizations like SOMOS Mayfair.

The East San Jose group has delayed an education program to address the immigrant community’s apprehension and suspicion about the government, and encourage them to weigh those emotions against the positive impact that answering the census will have on their community.

“We had a lot of exciting things planned and maybe this quarantine will give us more runway to plan new things to be ready to roll out when things return to normal,” said Chelsey Prewitt, a SOMOS Mayfair spokeswoman.

Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) postponed a massive door-knocking campaign to promote the census — including several neighborhoods in San Jose. They knocked on 1,000 doors before suspending that operation to observe social distancing, and they’ve reached more than 10,000 people through phone banking.

But SIREN Executive Director Maricela Gutiérrez said the coronavirus outbreak presented “an opportune moment” to take their message to social media.

“Families are home together and they’re on the internet, scrolling their phones and they’re bored,” Gutiérrez said.

So SIREN started a “census selfie challenge” asking residents to post pictures of themselves with their census invitations, which the bureau started mailing out last week.

The bureau said more than 11 million households have already answered the census.

“In late May, census takers around the nation will begin visiting households that have not yet responded to the 2020 Census to help complete the count,” Dillingham said. “As we continue to monitor the evolving COVID-19 outbreak, we will adjust census taker and survey operations as necessary in order to follow the guidance of federal, state and local health authorities.”

The bureau director emphasized all the ways people can respond to the questionnaire without face-to-face contact with a census taker.

“The public is strongly encouraged to respond to the 2020 census online using a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and can also respond by phone or mail,” Dillingham said. “Everyone should respond to the 2020 census as soon as they receive their invitation — and when they’re finished, they can make sure their friends, families and social networks know about the importance of responding.”

The information collected by the Census Bureau is critical in ensuring the county receives sufficient federal funding for critical social services. An undercount could lead to a loss of millions of dollars for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, Section 8 vouchers and more, as well as a loss of political power if the region loses a congressional seat as it did in 1990.

The county reports that $76 billion a year are at stake for California alone. Santa Clara County could stand to lose $2,000 per year in federal funding for every person who is not counted.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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