Census faces distrust, language barriers and a new deadline

By: - August 11, 2020 12:02 am

Accomack County has erected a bilingual billboard on U.S. Route 13 urging people to complete the census. (Photo courtesy of Cara Burton)

On July 15, Cara Burton, the director of the Eastern Shore Public Library, took an hour-long ferry to Tangier Island to find out why people there feel as if they shouldn’t count.

Burton chairs a committee urging residents of Accomack and Northampton counties to complete the 2020 census, which is supposed to be a headcount of everyone living in the United States. Since mid-March, the U.S. Census Bureau has been asking people to answer the agency’s questionnaire, which asks about the number and demographics of people living in the household, online or by phone or mail.

About 68 percent of Virginians have complied — the eighth-highest response rate among the states. But the statewide average masks vast differences among localities. In the Northern Virginia cities of Falls Church and Fairfax, 80 percent of the residents have filled out the census; in Accomack County, it’s just 35 percent.

Tangier Island sits in the Chesapeake Bay, accessible only by sea or air — a speck of Accomack County so isolated that residents speak with an accent reminiscent of Elizabethan English. Only 15 percent of the island’s inhabitants have taken the census. That is among the lowest response rates of all towns in the U.S.

The average age on Tangier Island is 52; one-third of the residents are 65 or older. “These are older folks,” Burton said. “They have internet access, but that’s not their preference for communication.” 

Burton said older people especially in rural areas are reluctant to give the Census Bureau what they consider personal information. “For some people, there’s an underlying distrust of the government.”

That’s just one of the obstacles Virginia faces in persuading people to complete the census, which like other aspects of life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a new challenge emerged: The Census Bureau, which had just started sending workers to the homes of non-responding households, moved up its deadline for finishing the tabulation. 

Originally, the bureau planned to conduct door-to-door enumeration through Oct. 31. But on Aug. 3, Steven Dillingham, the agency’s director, said the bureau would accelerate the process and end all data collection on Sept. 30.

His announcement caught state and local officials by surprise. The Virginia Complete Count Commission, a group appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam to promote participation in the census, is scrambling to adjust.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said the 34-member panel would convene online soon to revise its outreach strategies and timetable. She noted that the census, which is conducted every 10 years, is critical in distributing federal funds, drawing political districts and setting public policy.

“We’re losing a month without much notice,” Thomasson said.

Monica Sarmiento, a member of the commission, said that by rushing to finish the headcount, the Census Bureau might miss many households, especially communities of color, immigrants and people without internet access.

“By ending the census early, our federal government will result in failing to provide communities with much-needed resources. At a time when COVID-19 has magnified systemic and racial discrepancies, Virginia’s localities cannot afford to lose out on necessary funding,” said Sarmiento, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

“We cannot continue to rush the counting process when the ramifications can make a major difference in people’s lifetime.”

Sarmiento said the decision to expedite the census follows “nonstop attacks from the Trump administration” on immigrants, including the president’s effort to exclude “illegal aliens” in the apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and his failed attempt to ask census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens.

“It’s very disheartening,” Sarmiento said. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in the immigrant community.” As a result, people may be hesitant to complete the census or open the door for enumerators who come knocking.

Pandemic prompts census officials to rethink their plans

Since its ratification in 1788, the U.S. Constitution has mandated a decennial census for determining how many seats in the House of Representatives each state receives. By law, those population numbers must be conveyed to the president’s office by Dec. 31.

Moreover, the census determines how much communities receive each year in federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads and other programs.

A banner across a main drag in Abingdon notes that each person counted in the 2020 census means more than $20,000 in funding over the next 10 years. At the other end of the commonwealth, a billboard in Accomack County reiterates that message in English and Spanish.

Abingdon hung a banner across Cummings Street, one of the town’s busiest streets, to emphasize the importance of the census. (Photo courtesy of Kim Kingsley)

While government funding represents a carrot for people to participate in the census, there’s a hypothetical stick: Under federal law, refusing to take the census could draw a fine of up to $5,000, according to the American Bar Association; however, no one has been prosecuted for such an offense in the past 50 years.

“The answers you provide are used only to produce statistics. You are kept anonymous: The Census Bureau is not permitted to publicly release your responses in any way that could identify you or anyone else in your home,” the agency states on its website. 

“The Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about you, your home, or your business, even to law enforcement agencies. The law ensures that your private data is protected and that your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court.”

The census is intended to represent a population count for each community on April 1, said Lisa Chesnel, a media/partnership specialist for the Census Bureau. In the weeks leading up to that date, the bureau mailed census forms to households and publicized that people could complete the questionnaire on the web (it takes about 10 minutes) or by telephone (844-330-2020, with alternative numbers for 13 languages other than English).

As in past census years, the bureau planned to give people time to complete the 2020 census on their own and then in mid-May start sending enumerators to households that hadn’t responded.

But after the coronavirus started spreading in the U.S. in March, that schedule went out the window. The Census Bureau didn’t begin its follow-up work until July 16, and even then, it was a “soft launch” involving a half-dozen communities — a tiny fraction of the approximately 56 million U.S. addresses that must be visited. 

On July 23, Arlington County was the first Virginia locality to see in-person enumerators. Although Arlington’s self-response rate was 73 percent, an estimated 27,000 households in the county were missing from the census. 

On Thursday, census workers began visiting households in Fairfax, Fredericksburg and Roanoke that have not completed the questionnaire.

Chesnel said many of the enumerators were hired from the local community. They all will wear masks and follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, she said.

Census workers are also setting up stations called Mobile Questionnaire Assistance at supermarkets, pharmacies, laundromats and other public places, Chesnel said, where people who have not answered the census can fill out the questionnaire

In addition, the Census Bureau is running advertisements and sending millions of emails encouraging people to take the 2020 census online.

The Census Bureau has also partnered with national and local groups including the Salvation Army, faith-based organizations, schools and businesses, Chesnel said.

Furthermore, Virginia has its state-level commission as well as local committees imploring residents to complete the census. Those panels have used social media, speakers’ bureaus and other techniques to spread the word. 


Data shows response rates are all over the map

Thomasson, who was assigned by the governor in December 2018 to provide support for the Virginia Complete Count Commission, said she is “incredibly happy” that the commonwealth is among the top 10 states, with a census response rate of 67.9 percent. Minnesota has the highest response rate — 72.4 percent. The national response rate is 63.1 percent.

“There’s still a third of the state that hasn’t been counted,” Thomasson said. In the 2010 census, Virginia had a response rate of 69 percent before door-to-door visits started.

In some localities, enumerators from the U.S. Census Bureau are going door-to-door to solicit responses from people who haven’t completed the census. (Photo courtesy of the Census Bureau)

Thomasson said she is concerned about areas with very low response rates. For example, fewer than 40 percent of the residents of Northampton, Lee and Bath counties have completed the census, and Arlington County, Mecklenburg County and Hampton each have a census tract with a response rate below 20 percent.

Tapping a contingency fund, Northam authorized the Virginia Complete Count Commission to spend up to $1.5 million on outreach efforts. Thomasson said the panel still has money left and hopes to hold some “big events” to get more Virginians to answer the census by Sept. 30. 

Outreach efforts have seen success in counties such as Loudoun, Hanover, Roanoke and Fairfax, where more than three-fourths of the residents have taken the census. Two dozen census tracts in Fairfax have response rates above 90 percent. 

Katie Strotman, the lead staffer for the Fairfax Complete Count Committee, attributed the relatively high response rate there to several factors. Early on, the committee made presentations to community groups, from houses of worship to homeowner associations, to explain why people should complete the census.

The committee also promoted the census with flyers in bus shelters and signs in the Metro system, said Strotman, the community impact unit manager for Fairfax County. 

After COVID-19 hit, local officials had to switch gears.

“There’s no good time for a pandemic, but in regard to the census operation, it probably could not have come at a worse time,” said Will Palmquist, who chairs Richmond’s Complete Count Committee.

Unable to hold large in-person events because of COVID-19, his committee used social media and yard signs and distributed census literature through food pantries and other sites. On July 18, the Victory 7 Mustang Club and the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club held a vehicle parade to exhort Richmond residents to complete the census. 

Despite such efforts, Richmond’s response rate is about 58 percent — 7 percentage points below the city’s response rate in 2010.

In contrast, the response rate in Abingdon and surrounding Washington County is 66 percent. That is higher than any of the surrounding localities in Southwest Virginia. Russell County, for instance, has a response rate of 51 percent.

Kim Kingsley, the town clerk who heads the Abingdon Complete Count Committee, said that before the pandemic, the group distributed census flyers with utility bills and through day care centers, food banks and other facilities. Also, WEHC, the public radio station operated by Emory and Henry College, helped publicize the census on its show “A-Town Low Down.” 

COVID-19 has overshadowed the census and pushed the committee to use more social media, Kingsley said. She is pleased with her community’s response rate but said much remains to be done.

“We will have to have feet on the street,” with enumerators going door to door, Kingsley said.

Hard to count, hard to contact, hard to persuade

The Census Bureau says people can be hard to count for different reasons:

• Some are hard to contact, such as homeless people. Time is running out to count such individuals under the compressed schedule for the 2020 census. Originally, census takers planned to count people sleeping under bridges, in parks and in other outdoor places on April 1. Under the new timeline, that count is set for Sept. 23-24.

• Some people are hard to locate. For example, all Tangier Island residents have P.O. boxes — and the Census Bureau sends census forms only to physical street addresses. That is why the Eastern Shore Regional Complete Count Committee sent postcards about the census to all P.O. boxes in Accomack and Northampton counties.

• Some people are hard to persuade. They might not answer the census for “fear of how the information might be used or misused,” said Jonathan Zur, a member of Virginia Complete Count Commission.

In some housing complexes, for example, residents may have more people living in an apartment than the lease allows. They may fear eviction if they respond truthfully to the census, Zur said.

People who do not have legal authorization to live in the United States may fear deportation if they answer the census. Census advocates have assured undocumented immigrants that their information is confidential, but they might be reluctant to take the risk in today’s polarized political environment, said Sarmiento of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed people who have not filled out the census. It found that 40 percent of them would not be willing to talk to a census worker who came to their door.

Aida Pacheco, a member of the Virginia Complete Count Commission and the Virginia Latino Advisory Committee, said census officials are working with organizations such as the Sacred Heart Center in Richmond and having “bilingual and bicultural ambassadors” promote the census in neighborhoods with significant Hispanic population. 

During September — Hispanic Heritage Month — officials will emphasize civic engagement in the Latino community and urge people to take the census, Pacheco said.

Rural residents can be another hard-to-count population. “The more rural you are, the more difficult the response,” Chesnel said. Parts of Virginia lack internet access and even cell phone service. Also, people in remote areas may have “distrust in the government,” Chesnel said.

College students can be hard to count, too. Because of COVID-19, most colleges and universities told students not to return to campus after spring break. From the perspective of the census, however, students should be counted where they lived during the school year because that would have been their address on April 1.

The data indicate that in many communities, college students may be missing from the census. For instance, the Richmond census tract that includes Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park Campus has a response rate of 32 percent. And rates are lagging in such college towns as Radford (57 percent) and Farmville (54 percent).

The Census Bureau has tried to make it easy to ensure that college students are properly counted in the 2020 census. Schools can send the bureau rosters of students who live in dormitories and off campus for automatic inclusion in the census.

It’s still helpful for college students to fill out the census questionnaire on their own, said Carah Ong Whaley, a member of the Virginia Complete Count Commission and associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. That way, she said, the Census Bureau will have the students’ demographic information, and students will understand that it’s their civic duty to participate in the census in the future.

James Madison University posted signs on buses and around campus encouraging students to complete the census. (Photo courtesy of Carah Ong Whaley)

Ong Whaley taught a course about the census called Democracy Counts and developed a playbook for JMU and other schools to motivate students to answer the census. Before the pandemic, the strategies included campus events, classroom visits and signs on buses; since then, JMU has used social media, email and text messages to encourage participation.

When they registered online for fall classes, for example, JMU students saw a reminder to complete the 2020 census. The university also posted an online quiz about the census with a chance to win a $10 gift card.

“This is a public good, and a responsibility that universities have to the communities in which they’re situated,” Ong Whaley said.

Beyond funding and redistricting, ‘document for posterity’

Ong Whaley said she emphasizes to students that businesses use the census to decide where to open stores. “We can’t promise that Trader Joe’s is going to come to Harrisonburg” but it could happen if the 2020 census shows a critical mass of potential customers, she said.

Zur, the president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, said census data shapes public policy decisions on government services from bus stops to health clinics. “Collecting accurate information is critical,” he said.

Cara Burton thought of another reason for the census when she took Capt. Mark Crockett’s ferry from Onancock on the Eastern Shore to Tangier Island.

Burton grew up on the Eastern Shore in Nassawadox when the library there consisted of a bookmobile. After a 30-year absence, she returned to the Shore in 2016 to direct the regional library system and open a facility in Parksley. In small towns, she said, history is important.

That may be especially true on Tangier Island, which not only has an aging population but also is threatened by rising sea levels. The island is sinking into the Chesapeake and may be uninhabitable in 50 years, scientists say

By law, 72 years after a census is conducted, individual responses become public record and are available for genealogical research.

“It is important to document for posterity who was living on Tangier Island at this point in time in history,” Burton said. “Their cemeteries, many of which are on home properties, will be covered in water in 50 years.”


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Jeff South
Jeff South

Jeff South retired after 23 years as a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before that, he was a newspaper editor and reporter for 20 years in Virginia, Texas and Arizona. He can be reached at [email protected].