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Almost halfway through census response period, state again urges participation

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Delaware Public Media
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Months into the 2020 census count, Delaware’s self response rate lags behind the national average—and the self response rates of Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. 

As of Tuesday just under 60 percent of Delaware homes had filled out the survey, compared with 62 percent nationally. 

The state and the City of Wilmington formed complete count committees in 2018 and 2019 respectively to prepare to boost participation. New Castle County launched a "Commit 2B Counted” campaign. Libraries also pitched in. But the pandemic changed the strategy that the state, its counties and nonprofit partners are using to spread awareness about the census. Now more outreach is happening online and by phone. 

State officials are calling this week “census week,” making a coordinated push with their partners to increase awareness. 

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long says getting an accurate count of the people living in Delaware is crucial. One of the things it determines is federal funding.

“It’s really important that we get those dollars, for healthcare, for education, for infrastructure, for jobs, housing,” she said. 

The census also determines political representation and provides a crucial source of data used in enterprises from public health to urban planning. 

Hall-Long emphasizes that completing the census is quick, easy and private. This year it can be done by mail, by phone or online— including on a smartphone. 

Delawareans have been able to respond to the census online or by phone since early spring. Paper questionnaires were mailed out to homes in mid-April. 

Laura Wisniewski, who works in the Lt. Governor’s office, says officials originally planned for sites across the state to provide residents with computer access to complete the census. But the coronavirus prevented that. 

“We also changed the messaging that you can do it right on your cell phone,” she said. 

Sussex County currently has the lowest self-response rate in Delaware. As of Tuesday fewer than 50 percent of homes there had responded — compared to close to 65 percent in New Castle County.

Wisniewski says online education and outreach about the census is effective, but can miss what are known as “hard-to-count” populations, including those experiencing homelessness, non-English speakers, low-income people, undocumented immigrants and people who distrust the government.

The nonprofit First State Community Action Agency is leading census education and outreach in Sussex County’s hard-to-count communities. Wisniewski says census ambassadors working with the nonprofit are beginning phone banking. 

“That’s where we’re moving to now is having the conversations with those who are maybe a little bit more fearful to fill out the census on why it is safe,” she said. “You can portray that message over digital to a certain extent, but really having those one-on-one conversations with people I think has also made an impact on being able to get them.”

Wisniewski adds the response rates in beach towns may appear artificially low, since second homes are included in the calculation. 

The U.S. Census Bureau plans to send census takers to interview households that do not self-respond starting Aug. 11. Census takers are currently working with administrators at facilities such as colleges, senior centers and prisons to make sure those residents are counted. 

Federal officials will finish collecting responses by the end of October and deliver apportionment counts to the President and Congress in December. 

The 2020 census can be completed at 2020census.gov. 

 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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