COVID-19 pandemic raises challenges and new solutions, for census data collection

Image courtesty of Pixabay

By Andres Picon
BU News Service

BOSTON — On March 20, just four days before Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses in Massachusetts to close in an effort to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, Ann Sirois was dealing with a different kind of order — she was picking up a shipment of 3,000 flyers encouraging people to respond to the United States Census.

Now, with people staying home and the U.S. Census Bureau suspending its field data collection operations until at least June 1, Sirois, the director of planning and quality improvement at Community Teamwork, a community action agency serving the greater Lowell area, is scrambling to try to ensure that the approximately 53,000 people her organization serves annually fill out the form. And she’s not alone.

“We planned for what we thought was going to happen, but no one expected this,” said Debra O’Malley, spokeswoman for Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin, who acts as the state’s census liaison. “We’re familiar with what our usual difficulties are, but certainly this was not an expected difficulty.”

The census, the federal government’s method of counting every living person in the country, is required by the Constitution to take place every 10 years as a way to determine how federal funding is allocated, how many congressional districts and electoral votes each state has and how political representation at the local, state and federal levels is allocated, among other things.

“It’s important that every individual gets counted because that’s the purpose of the census,” said Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, chair of the House Committee on Redistricting. “It’s an enumeration of all people — it doesn’t matter where you came from or why you are here. We need to know where resources need to go, where political power needs to be allocated.”

But this year, the start of the census season has been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, spawning concerns for politicians, community leaders and advocates. They worry that the newfound lack of face-to-face interaction, delays in nationwide census operations and an ever-growing mistrust in government could result in an undercount, especially among hard-to-count populations, including low-income people, immigrants, people facing housing insecurity, college students and the elderly.

“People are really concerned about how we reach out to our community members, especially those who … may need extra support to understand how to fill out the census and also how to feel confident about sharing information,” said Vatsady Sivongxay, statewide complete count coordinator for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Sivongxay said that the pandemic caused an extra challenge, especially with people concerned about their families and their wellbeing.

Of the approximately 6.9 million people living in Massachusetts, about 1.6 million (nearly a quarter) live in hard-to-count areas — parts of the state in which less than 74% of residents submit completed census forms on their own, Sivongxay said.

There are several factors that explain why certain areas and certain groups of people are considered difficult to count. Among the most prominent are low income, a lack of knowledge about the census and its importance and movement in and out of the state — a factor that was exacerbated by people, especially college students, moving back to their family homes to self-isolate in the pandemic.

In fiscal year 2019, Massachusetts received about $22 billion in federal funds, but every person who does not get counted accounts for about $2,400 in funding that never gets allocated, according to Sivongxay.

The Urban Institute, a think tank that conducts economic and social policy research, estimates that in 2020, up to 63,600 Massachusetts residents could be undercounted, which would amount to more than $152 million of missed federal funding.

Massachusetts lost a congressional district and thus a representative in Congress in 2010, after census results showed that its population growth lagged behind that of the country as a whole.

“We have a certain amount of allocation for all of the states, so states that have a higher count are going to gain a seat, and states that have a lower count compared to other states will lose a seat,” Sivongxay said. “In 2010 we lost a seat … That really changes the dynamics at the congressional level, and our voice being fairly represented in [Washington,] D.C.”

In Berkshire County alone, there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 low-income residents, some of whom may not have reliable internet access or the technology needed to learn about and fill out the census form online, a convenient option being offered for the first time in 2020, according to Mark Maloy, head of the Berkshire County Complete Count Committee and the GIS data and IT manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Additionally, a significant number of communities in the county belong to Update Leave areas — parts of the state in which a majority of households receive mail at post office boxes, to which the Census Bureau does not send forms. Other parts of the state in which many homes are people’s second homes, like the Cape and Islands, face the same issue, Maloy said.

“We have people in the community who wouldn’t get forms until someone came to their door. That process got stopped,” Maloy said. “[The pandemic] threw a kink into all our plans because we can’t do our hands-on outreach during the bulk of the census time, so that’s been a struggle for us.”

Before the shutdown, the BRPC had planned to set up about 30 census access points across the county — community centers like libraries, schools and senior centers — that would have had computers and trained staff available to help residents fill out the form online.

Community action agencies like Citizens for Citizens in the greater Fall River and Taunton areas and advocacy groups like MIRA also had plans to help people respond to the census in designated locations with dedicated support staff.

With those plans now nearly impossible to execute safely, these organizations are taking advantage of the fact that the census has gone digital for the first time, adjusting to the challenges presented by the pandemic and finding new ways to reach out to members of their communities to urge them to respond to the census.

MIRA has abandoned its plan to open questionnaire assistance centers and is now relying on a phone and text campaign to reach out to people it has worked with in the past — especially immigrants and refugees — many of whom, advocates say, have felt intimidated by the Trump administration’s failed proposal in 2019 to add a citizenship question to the census.

“The pandemic has really simplified a lot of the tools we have in our toolbox because we just can’t meet people face-to-face,” Sivongxay said. “This year we did provide training, but we just couldn’t execute it. Overnight, we pretty much had to switch to digital organizing and the old-school phone banking.”

The proposed citizenship question “has caused damage and instilled fear,” she added. “The immigrant community has already experienced some anxiety because of the [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids, people of color have experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. There’s a legitimate fear of sharing information with the government.”

But at Community Teamwork in Lowell, Sirois has made sure that the 3,000 flyers she picked up in March do not go to waste. 

While they were originally supposed to be sent to families’ homes in the backpacks of children attending the childcare program Community Teamwork offers to low-income families, the flyers are now going into some of the 800 daily food packets that the agency is delivering to many of those same families struggling with the economic effects of the pandemic, providing them with information on how to fill out the census online or by phone, Sirois said.

The programs offered by Community Teamwork and Citizens for Citizens — from child care and family planning to food provision and fuel assistance — are largely designed to help members of hard-to-count groups, particularly low-income people, manage the challenges they face daily. Most of those programs depend on federal funding and grants, for which eligibility and allocation depend on demographic and population data determined by the census.

“If there was a significant undercount, it would appear that our low-income population is smaller than it is,” Sirois said. “Low-income families are kind of our bread and butter.”

The potential for an undercount, and thus less federal funding, could result in a reduction in the number of families community action agencies can serve, and eventually even less pay for their staff, who in turn put that money back into the economy, said Liz Berube, executive director of Citizens for Citizens.

But community organizations are not the only institutions concerned about an undercount. Municipalities across the state, especially those with a high percentage of typically hard-to-count residents, are also wary about losing funding or political representation amid the pandemic.

The city of Everett, for example, estimates its population to be about 50,000 people. If those 50,000 people get counted, the city qualifies for certain state or federal grants that it would not qualify for if its counted population does not meet that threshold, House chair Mark said.

In North Adams, a city of about 13,000 residents, officials have similar concerns. The city has implemented a “reverse 911” calling system as part of its outreach efforts. Residents have already received several pre-recorded messages from city officials urging them to go to the census website and fill out the form, which takes about 10 minutes, and it seems to be working, said Michael Nuvallie, director of community development in North Adams.

“I have a strong sense that these calls are very effective because people listen to them,” Nuvallie said. “All they have to do is listen, and because it comes from the municipality, they will listen intently, because they know it’s important.”

By May 1, the self-response rate in Massachusetts had reached 57.9%, with 88% of all in-state census responses having been submitted online, according to the Census Bureau. The final self-response rate in the state in 2010 was 68.8%.

With the deadline for census counting extended from July to Oct. 31 as a result of the pandemic, officials and advocates are cautiously hopeful that this year’s count will meet that of past years.

“If we can get close to that, I’ll be happy, given the circumstances right now,” Maloy said. “Obviously, we’d like to have that higher, but I’m trying to be realistic in my expectations.”

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