NationalWilliam J. Ford

Coronavirus Pandemic Puts Stranglehold on Census Outreach Efforts

County government, city and municipal officials and nonprofit organizations have held hundreds of block parties, training sessions and community-wide events in preparation for the 2020 census.

However, the novel coronavirus the World Health Organization recently described as a “pandemic” has forced the cancellation of dozens of local events throughout the D.C. region just as the first census forms began to arrive in households on March 12.

Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2) of Adelphi said at least 40 events she either helped organize or planned to participate in through Census Day on April 1 won’t happen. Neither will she have the opportunity to inform residents in her district by knocking on close to 30,000 homes during the days that follow.

“The census is grassroots work to meet people, talk to people and continue to let people know how important this is,” she said. “The door-knocking was…to make sure we touched everybody. My strategy changed as a result of this coronavirus.”

Because Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a state of emergency that includes closing public schools for two weeks and prohibit gatherings of 50 people or more, social media and digital advertising appears to be the main alternative to ensure people are counted.

In January, the U.S. Census Bureau showcased portions of a $500 million public outreach campaign called “Shape your future. START HERE.” Part of the advertising blitz seeks to highlight how census forms remain easy to complete with the responses confidential.

“We cannot share your information with immigration enforcement agencies, law enforcement agencies, or allow it to be used to determine your eligibility for government benefits,” the agency document reports.

Commercials continue to broadcast on local television and radio stations and social media with a constant message for Americans to fill out census documents in English or 12 other acceptable languages. People can call, or for the first time, complete a form online at https://my2020census.gov/.

As of Sunday, March 15, about five million of an estimated 330 million Americans had responded online to the census.

Maryland could receive about $16 billion of the $800 billion in federal dollars from the count held every 10 years. The money can be used for schools, roads, housing and even determine the state’s representation in Congress.

With coronavirus infections still surging nationwide, reaching “hard-to-count” areas that include low-income neighborhoods and residential areas representing those who speak limited English will become even more challenging.

According to 2010 census data, Blacks and Latinos were undercounted at 2 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively.

That’s why advocates and organizations such as CASA de Maryland plan to use social media and word of mouth to ensure Maryland doesn’t lose an estimated $18,250 per person not counted in the census.

Trent Leon-Lierman, a regional organizer with CASA, said the organization knocked on 12,000 doors and held 3,200 one-on-one conversations with residents before the coronavirus appeared.

The group also collected more than 2,200 “commitment cards” in Prince George’s to ensure residents fill out census documents when they received them.

“Because of this [coronavirus,], we’re going to make 2,200 phone calls to the people who signed a pledge card asking them if they have already filled out the census, or how can we support them to fill it out,” said Leon-Lierman, who performs immigrant rights advocacy work in both Prince George’s and Howard counties. “We have to make sure everybody gets counted in the house and apartments, especially children. When that happens, everyone benefits.”

Census Bureau Revises Schedule

Although the Census Bureau must have all completed documents to Congress and the president by Dec. 31, the agency outlined some new strategies Sunday.

For instance, the bureau will contact service providers to help with collecting census data at nursing homes, shelters, or other temporary housing locations. The previous date to interview persons at a soup kitchen or mobile food van was scheduled between March 30 to April 1.

Nearly 35 percent of college students chose to fill out census forms on campus and drop them, but colleges and universities are closing campuses. They planned to conduct this on April 1. However, the coronavirus has not only forced the bureau to suspend that action with college administrators, but also move back the day to knock on doors of students who reside off-campus from April 9 to April 23.

In addition, the bureau will delay its March 30 date for mobile outreach and begin April 6 at some locations and April 13 for the rest of the country.

“Currently, the planned completed date is July 31, but that can and will be adjusted if necessary as the situation dictates in order to achieve a complete and accurate count,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “As we continue to assess the current situation, we will always make decisions that ensure the health and safety of our staff and the public in consultation with public health authorities.”

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William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer

I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com

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