The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on Census outreach and response, and Common Cause RI Executive Director John Marion said it will need to get better in the coming months.
Marion told the Beacon in an interview on Friday that Rhode Island currently ranks 36th nationally in turnout despite a strong start that saw the state at the head of the pack in New England. Marion said the response has been stronger in the suburbs than in the cities, but overall the Ocean State is “not doing as well as we’d hoped.”
“The biggest impact is that the Census outreach can’t be done in person at the moment,” Marion said. “For instance, the Census Bureau has pushed back the date for the door-to-door outreach where they try to reach people who didn't respond to the mailings they’ve sent out. The counting committee was planning significant outreach at public events, as well as canvassing, all of which can’t take place right now, so that’s the immediate impact.”
At the national level, a Census press release on Monday said that more than 70 million households – accounting for 48 percent across the United States – had filled out the survey. The Bureau had already taken steps in March to suspend field operations until June 1 because of the pandemic, and the deadline has been extended from July 31 to Aug. 13. The deadline for field data collection, according to the release, has been moved to Halloween.
“In-person activities, including all interaction with the public, enumeration, office work and processing activities, will incorporate the most current guidance to promote the health and safety of staff and the public,” the release reads. “This will included recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing practices.”
Jeff Behler, regional director of the NY Census Center – one of six across the country – told the Beacon in an interview Wednesday morning that, though field operations have ceased at the few areas that were out in the community, staffers are being paid through at least next week.
Behler, who represents every state from New York to Maine as well as Puerto Rico, said that having multiple options for filling out the Census has been helpful as the organization wades through the pandemic.
He said that some areas – including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut – have done “very well” in response thus far.
“They started off extremely strong,” Behler said. “It really is due to the work of all the partners that we hae when we think of the governors, statewide complete count committee, churches, mayors, community-based organizations, that have over the past year and a half, two years created a foundation of trust, really educating their community members what the Census is about.”
Behler did say, though, that the virus has forced cancellations of events across the region aimed at getting people together to learn about and potentially fill out the Census.
Despite that, people still have time and several methods of submitting their surveys. He said it’s “extremely important” with billions in federal funding at stake.
“The good thing is we still do have a free way for people to be counted,” Behler said. “People can go online, can call the toll-free number [1-800-923-8282] and now we’re in the process of mailing out paper questionnaires to thousands of households who have yet to respond.”
Marion said that, for those in Rhode Island who have yet to fill out the Census, there are three ways to do it. The primary method at this juncture is via the Internet, but not everyone has access. Those people can still be counted through a paper survey or over the phone.
“In fact everyone who doesn't complete it online will receive the paper questionnaire, those started going out this week, but people who don’t want to fill it out on paper can just use the telephone,” Marion said. “In fact, that’s available in multiple languages. No one will be denied the chance to fill it out because they don't have Internet access. If you have telephone access, if you receive mail, you’ll have a chance to fill it out.”
It’s a race against not only time, but other states, as several seek to maintain the status quo or obtain more representation. Underperformance on the Census, Marion said, could lead to Rhode Island losing one of its two congressional seats – which would leave just one to represent more than 1 million people.
“We’ll also potentially lose a significant amount of federal funds,” Marion said. “It depends on the individual federal program, but more than 100 federal programs are tied to Census data. So we could potentially lose a lot of money for the next 10 years if we continue to under perform… We lose not only one of the seats, but we lose an Electoral College vote, we lose district offices that people use to access government programs. We go from having among the smallest congressional seats in terms of population to the largest in the United States.”
Rhode Island’s situation could be worse, as Marion said several other states invested much more capital in “robust field operations that are now being scrapped.” The ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic are far-reaching, but every state is forced to adapt.
“We had a three-tiered approach with going through nonprofits and trusted partners doing field and digital communication, and we’re shifting some of the resources to digital that were going to go to the field operations, so we’re able to respond to the current situation a little bit,” Marion said. “It’s certainly a significant problem.”