US Census Taker.jpg (copy)

A U.S. Census Bureau worker approaches a home in Providence, Rhode Island.

RALEIGH — With the coronavirus pandemic upending everything, fewer people have filled out their 2020 census forms, meaning more households in North Carolina can expect a visit from a census worker starting next month.

As of the latest data, 58.3% of North Carolina households have filled out their census form either online, by phone or through the mail. That compares to a response rate of nearly 65% during the 2010 census. Nationwide, 62.3% of households have filled out their forms, compared to 72% by this time in 2010.

There’s still time to submit the forms before census workers begin visiting households that have not responded on Aug. 11. But the response rate both in the state and nationwide has slowed, rising less than a percentage point in the last month.

The Census Bureau began encouraging people to fill out their forms online in mid-March, just as the coronavirus was shutting down the country. The bureau and hundreds of organizations nationwide had planned outreach efforts at shopping centers, libraries, festivals and other places where people gather to encourage them to complete the census.

“It was really heavy on direct contact,” said Stacey Carless, executive director of the N.C. Counts Coalition, a nonprofit that coordinates census campaigns across the state. “And once COVID hit all of that shut down.”

The Census Bureau closed its field offices in March and said it would take more time to collect data. The bureau had expected to begin visiting households that had not responded to the census in May and finish by July 31. With concerns about face-to-face contact, the bureau put off most visits until August and has extended the deadline to complete the count until Oct. 31.

The delay gave groups doing outreach time to change their strategies. Instead of in-person encounters, they’re doing more on social media. They’re handing out flyers at food banks and distribution events instead of at street fairs. And they’ve organized caravans of cars and trucks decked out with signs and banners encouraging people to fill out their forms. The first of several “Parade of Counts” in North Carolina was held in Southeast Raleigh on May 1.

“We ride through communities and pretty much make noise to bring attention to the census,” Carless said.

Census has never been delayed before

The U.S. Constitution requires a complete national census every 10 years to determine how seats in Congress are divvied up among the states. The data is used in myriad other ways, such as in drawing political districts within states and determining how federal money is distributed.

This is the 24th census since the first one in 1790. Through wars, economic depressions and other turmoil, the count has never before been missed or delayed. The form asks for demographic information about everyone living at a particular address on April 1.

This is the first time everyone was invited to fill out their form online, and internet access is a big factor in response rates, says Jessica Stanford, a demographer with Carolina Demography based at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Census tracts with the most internet access in North Carolina have the highest response rates, Stanford said, and vice versa. That’s reflected in county response rates. More than two-thirds of census forms have been submitted in urban and suburban counties such as Union, Orange and Wake, while the lowest response rates are in rural mountain counties, such as Avery, Graham, Jackson and Swain, all below 32%.

Carolina Demography’s analysis also shows lower response rates in census tracts where more than half of residents are Black, Hispanic or other minority groups. Those communities have historically been undercounted as well.

The coronavirus will likely result in an undercount of students in college towns, Stanford said. The closing of colleges and universities in the spring prompted many students to leave the places they would have been living on April 1. While schools can still accurately count who might have been living in dorms at that time, many students living off campus may be counted elsewhere if they’re counted at all, Stanford said.

“That’s going to be a massive hit to those areas that rely on students to boost their count,” she said. “Census tracts around UNC have really been lagging.”

You can still ‘avoid the knock’

The lower response rates for the census means more work for enumerators, the people who will visit households that have not returned their forms.

With historically low unemployment before the pandemic, the Census Bureau struggled to fill 500,000 part-time jobs for field workers.

The job market has changed dramatically, but many people may still be reluctant to take a job going door-to-door.

“It remains to be seen how many people they will actually have to send to people’s homes,” Stanford said. “Hopefully most people who had applied for those jobs back in the winter are still willing to take them, but we are concerned there is a portion who will not be comfortable to knock on people’s doors even with a mask on.”

The Census Bureau has enough enumerators, says Marilyn Stephens, spokeswoman for the Southeast region, though the bureau is still taking applications. Stephens said census workers who go door-to-door will wear a mask and a picture ID and will step back at least 6 feet when someone answers and ask to do the interview outside.

Stephens stressed that people can avoid a visit from a census worker by filling out their form, which would make the bureau’s job easier as well.

“We want you to self respond so we have fewer households to follow up with,” she said.

Carless said the N.C. Counts Coalition will be mounting an “Avoid the knock” campaign in early August aimed at people who might be squeamish about a stranger coming to their door during a pandemic.

“You can avoid that if you fill out the form on your own before the 11th,” she said.

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