Will COVID-19 impact the census count in Delaware?
With Census Day right around the corner, advocates for a complete count in Delaware are dealing with a whole new set of challenges.
The count of every person living in the U.S. that happens once every ten years is underway — by mail, by phone and online.
The U.S. Census Bureau has twice this month suspended field operations in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile local efforts to boost participation are also being disrupted by the pandemic.
New Castle County County officials say more than two dozen town halls planned to educate residents about the census have been pushed back.
The Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood is one organization working to facilitate an accurate count. CEO Logan Herring says the fact that Kingswood’s doors are closed due to the virus makes that hard.
“One of the things that's going to ... have a great impact on the census count is the inability to have our doors open to sit folks down at a computer to allow them to have access to the internet,” he said.
The 2010 U.S. Census counted a little over 4,000 residents in the Riverside neighborhood, with almost all of them living in poverty. Low income people are considered by the U.S. Census Bureau one of several “hard-to-count” populations.
"... The fact that our doors are not open can really have a negative impact on the count, which is already counted few and far between in our neighborhood." - Logan Herring
Herring, who also runs partner organizations REACH Riverside and The Warehouse, says the community center’s role is also to answer questions and mitigate any anxieties that residents might have about filling out the census.
“When you have all the barriers and issues that people in low-income neighborhoods might have on a daily basis, filling out a form, any type of form or survey, brings a certain amount of anxiety,” he said. “Us not being able to mitigate that with the fact that our doors aren’t open, can really have a negative impact on the count, which is already counted few and far between in our neighborhood.”
As of Sunday, more than a third of Delawareans had already responded to the census by phone, internet or mail — a rate that lagged behind the nationwide self-response rate by less than a percentage point.
Kenyetta McCurdy-Byrd is chief operating officer of REACH Riverside. She argues the Census, which determines political representation in Congress and some federal funding, is important to get right.
“It brings in billions of dollars of revenue around things that touch everybody in some way, shape or form,” she said. “It’s our firefighters, it’s employment and training, it’s healthcare, which includes our hospitals and clinics. It’s Section 8 Housing. It’s construction and infrastructure.”
McCurdy-Byrd thinks the coronavirus could impact participation.
"I would certainly imagine that there would be an undercount due to COVID-19,” she said. “However, the census has never been easier now that we’re able to access it online. What we can do to help strengthen the cause is pretty much rally the troops: everyone needs to call upon their friends, their family, their neighbor to engage and participate in the process.”
"Everyone needs to call upon their friends, their family, their neighbor to engage and participate in the process." - Kenyetta McCurdy-Byrd
“Rallying the troops” is just what Jessica Gibson-Brokenbaugh, public affairs officer for New Castle County, is trying to do.
Gibson-Brokenbaugh is optimistic the coronavirus will not depress census response rates in Delaware much. She says despite the County’s town halls being cancelled, officials are continuing to use technology and their connections with civic associations and community groups to spread the word about the census.
“We’re halted in the sense of being out in the streets engaging with people, knocking on doors, holding events, but this coronavirus isn’t getting in the way of what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re constantly putting information on social media, connecting with our non-profit partners and asking them to continue that engagement.”
McCurdy-Byrd mentions creating virtual census tutorials for residents of the Riverside neighborhood. Herring says Kingswood hopes to partner with the City of Wilmington to provide a WiFi hotspot for residents in the parking lot.
Gibson-Brokenbaugh says childcare centers play an especially important role in distributing information about the census, as school-aged children and those under the age of five are often undercounted, hindering public schools’ ability to plan and depriving programs that serve youth of federal funding. Gov. John Carney has ordered childcare centers not serving “essential” employees to close by April 6 under his State of Emergency.
If a household does not respond to the census by phone, mail or internet, a census taker will knock on its door to collect the response. According to the Census Bureau, this will occur between May and July.
Gibson-Brokenbaugh says many people are resistant to opening their doors when census takers knock, especially if the census taker is someone they are not familiar with or who “doesn’t look like” them. So she says the delay in census field operations due to the coronavirus could have a “silver lining.”
"When we get past this crisis, I think there is going to be an extra emphasis on planning by governments." - Sam Hoff
“We’ve always had an issue in Delaware with the self-response rate,” she said. “Then once we pushed our enumerators to the streets, we’ve had a decline in engagement. This gives us a window to continually engage folks, whether it's virtually, over the telephone, through providers, and give us another good one or two month window to do that before the enumerators hit the street.”
Sam Hoff, professor emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University, says Delaware’s number of representatives in Congress is unlikely to increase as a result of the 2020 census.
But he says crises like the coronavirus demonstrate the importance of an accurate census for government planning.
“Right now we’re all fixated on the current situation,” he said. “But when we get past this crisis, I think there’s going to be an extra emphasis on planning by governments, at all levels, whether it’s local, county, state or federal.”
“This [pandemic] is going to affect people all the way down to the individual households,” Hoff added. “Whether it’s hoarding toilet paper or whatever, I think folks are going to be thinking in new ways after this. In some ways that can be a blessing in the sense of planning by governments — planning for policies and emergencies— but you want to do that with the best possible information, the best possible data that you have, and that’s why the census is so important.”
Correction: Kenyetta McCurdy-Byrd is chief operating officer of REACH Riverside, not chief financial officer.