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With Census timeline cut short, advocates worry many Delawareans will go uncounted

Delaware Public Media

Earlier this week the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed reports it is cutting short its count of every person living in the U.S. by a month. Local advocates worry not everyone in the First State will get counted. 

The pandemic, as well as the Trump Administration’s failed attempts to add a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, already had advocates for an accurate count worried.

The door-knocking and self-response periods of the census count were both set to end Oct. 31—an extension of the original timeline because of the pandemic. But the Census Bureau has now moved the deadline for the count up to September 30. 

That means federal officials only have about seven weeks to count the nearly 40 percent of Delawareans who have not yet responded. 

This worries people like Bernice Edwards who are working on the ground to make sure everyone participates. Edwards directs the nonprofit First State Community Action Agency, which helps the state coordinate census ambassadors in Sussex County.  Sussex currently has the lowest Census self-response rate in the state.

“Already, we have a challenging time,” said Edwards. “And to push it back a month, it just appears to me there’s going to be so many people who are going to be left out."

Local advocates and ambassadors have worked for months spreading awareness about the census and helping residents self-respond by mail, phone or online. Toward the end of the count, federal census takers, or enumerators, go door-to-door interviewing any households that have not self-responded. 

Federal officials are expected to begin knocking on doors in Delaware within the next week.

So far Delaware’s overall self-response rate lags behind the national average of 63 percent. As of Thursday, roughly 65 percent of New Castle County and Kent County residents had filled out the survey, compared to around 50 percent in Sussex County, according to the Census Bureau. 

Edwards’ organization focuses on reaching what the Census Bureau describes as hard-to-count populations, such as communities of color, immigrant communities, non-English speakers and seniors. Edwards worries these groups will be most affected by the shortened timeline.

Sheila Bravo, executive director of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA), has the same concern. Bravo has been leading efforts by the state’s Complete Count Commission to reach hard-to-count populations.

“We had heard that [the deadline] would be extended to the end of October, and so timelines were built and plans were made,” said Bravo. “To shorten the process by a month is very concerning for us.”

First State Community Action Agency has educated residents about the census at food distribution events, COVID-19 testing sites, virtual community and church meetings and through home visits to seniors. 

“[The census] seems to be put on the back burner, but we cannot do that,” said Edwards. “Now it’s going to be a race to try and get as many people to fill out the census [as possible].”

Edwards emphasizes the need to build trust. She says in Sussex County’s Latino communities, some are concerned participation in the census will bring attention from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

 “We are a trusted agency within the community that we serve,” said Edwards. “So when we are speaking with those residents in the community, they understand that by filling the census out, it’s not going to cause you to be followed by ICE, because that information is private.” 

The U.S. Census only happens once every ten years. It determines political representation as well as the distribution of federal funding for things including schools, housing, healthcare and infrastructure. 

“Delaware, being a small state, [it’s] very important to us to be able to have the count,” said Edwards. “It affects our education, jobs— the everyday living of the individuals in the communities that we serve.”


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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