The census, which is taken every ten years in communities across the U.S., is an effort by the federal government to count every individual in the country. Invitations to participate were sent out to every residential address in the second week of March, and follow-up efforts typically involve working with homeless shelters, prisons, senior centers and other groups to make sure everyone is counted.
On March 28, the U.S. Census Bureau announced field operations would be suspended until April 15 because of the coronavirus. In-person interviews have also been suspended, and the deadline to complete the count has been pushed back to from the end of July to mid-August.
"The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees and everyone who will go through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions," officials said in a statement.
In the meantime, local advocates in the Houston area said they are getting ready for a big outreach effort aligned with census day, the day at which point each American residence will have received an invite to participate and are encouraged to begin responding.
"Things have changed with the coronavirus, but our strategy hasn’t changed as much as our tactics have changed," said Nabila Mansoor, who co-chairs the Harris County/Houston Complete Count Committee, a collaborative effort of city and county officials, community leaders and nonprofits dedicated to ensuring a complete count in Houston and Harris County.
Instead of doing in-person outreach activities such as canvassing, Mansoor said advocates have shifted to digital outreach, including informational streaming events on social media, phone banks, email blasts and texting campaigns. She said advocates have also been looking for opportunities to partner with other nonprofits to include messaging about the census at their coronavirus aid events. For example, staff members with Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services will be providing information and answering questions about the census between 8-11 a.m. each day this week during an ongoing food pantry event for people in need.
Mansoor, who also serves as the census coordinator for Emgage USA and co-chair of the Houston in Action Census Working Group, said the shift to digital outreach makes it even more challenging to reach disadvantaged populations who might not have access to the internet. She said the key to making sure historically undercounted populations are not overlooked involves building relationships with people in those communities. Those relationships were in place prior to the coronavirus, Mansoor said, but now the committee is working with those people on creating email lists and phone lists to reach as many people as possible.
"All of our partners have been spending a long time trying to figure out how we make that really big push to our particular communities to respond to the Census," she said. "We're still looking to leverage those trusted relationships that we were using before. We’re just doing it in a different way now."
The 2020 census is the first time that officials have provided a method to participate online, which Mansoor said makes her optimistic that the effect of the coronavirus will not be as pronounced.
"That is a great opportunity for us because we know that people are spending more and more time at home," she said. "There are a lot of resources out there that we are going to use to make sure people respond to the census. I almost think of this as an opportunity for us to get the word out to a lot of folks who might have not have heard that messaging before."
Census data is part of what is used to determine the amount of federal assistance cities and counties receive from programs such as the Medical Assistance Program and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. For each person counted, the federal government will allocate $1,578 to the state of Texas.
The data is also used to determine how many congressional representatives each state has and how their districts are drawn.
As of March 31, roughly 30.7% of Harris County residents have responded, according to census data. In 2010, 65.1% of county residents responded by the time the count was completed.
According to an updated calendar on the U.S. Census Bureau's website, efforts to begin counting homeless individuals are now slated to take place between April 29-May 1. Between April 16 and June 19, census takers will work with administrators at colleges, senior centers, prisons and other facilities that house large groups of people. Officials plan to interview homes that have not responded starting on May 27, a process that typically involves going door to door. That timeline is still subject to change, officials said in the March 28 press release.
Residents can complete the census online, over the phone or through the mail.