The census is not canceled: How advocates are reaching hard-to-count communities 

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, knock on doors on Kingsley Avenue in Northampton on Sept. 23, 2019 to remind people of the importance of filling out the upcoming U.S. Census forms. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narekwicz speaks to a group of volunteers before they visit  Northampton residents to remind them of the importance of filling out the upcoming U.S. Census forms on Sept. 23, 2019 at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, listens. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2020 6:52:34 PM

AMHERST — In recent weeks, the usual pace of everyday life in the United States has skidded to a halt — with most stores shuttered, concerts and events canceled and many people holed up in their homes in a collective effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But government doesn’t stop for the coronavirus, and with that, neither does the decennial U.S. Census.

Counting every American resident is not an easy task under normal circumstances, let alone during an outbreak of infectious disease. And though some local advocates are working to make sure the pandemic does not result in lower counts among certain communities, they are also hopeful that online tallying combined with stay-at-home orders may lead to greater participation.

“This virus, hopefully, will last no more than a few months,” said Laurie Millman, executive director of the Center for New Americans. “But the results of the census will be with us for 10 years.”

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the census is primarily used to determine each state’s congressional apportionment and districting. The count also helps the federal government divvy up $675 billion per year for schools, hospitals, roads and other programs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A person can complete the census either online, on paper or by phone, and every individual must be counted regardless of immigration status, according to Millman.

As of Tuesday — one day before “Census Day” on April 1, the reference point for residency — more than 38% of all U.S. households had already completed the survey. The Census Bureau must send the president apportionment and population counts by Dec. 31.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said she’s hopeful that local residents will fill out the online census as many people are social distancing and staying inside.

“For people who have internet and have a computer, it’s really simple to do,” Domb said. “Right now they don’t have any other competing demands, since we’re all trying to stay at home.”

Domb said universities are communicating with students who live off campus to encourage them to complete the census in Amherst. She said the University of Massachusetts will count those who normally live on campus.

Transitioning to virtual outreach

In addition to college students, census advocates are also working to engage immigrants, the homeless, the elderly and other “hard-to-count” communities who have been under-recorded in past censuses, which is particularly challenging during the pandemic, said Patrick Beaudry, spokesman for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC). The Census Bureau itself has postponed field operations until April 15 and extended self-reporting deadlines to August due to COVID-19.

In the past, grassroots groups and local government officials have gone door-to-door and done in-person events to help engage those harder-to-count communities across the area. Beaudry said that the current PVPC group — which convenes many local complete count committees — is still trying to figure out how to make sure census messaging isn’t lost during the pandemic. Online programs will be part of the solution, he added.

“We will have a challenge counting the hard-to-counts because of this,” Beaudry said of the public health crisis. “So it’s even more critical for those who are able … to make sure you’re counted.”

This transition to a greater online outreach for such communities has already begun, said Millman of the Center for New Americans. The organization, which teaches English and American civics lessons to immigrants, canceled in-person “Census Clinics” aimed at teaching immigrants about the importance of the census and how to fill it out.

The center is now reaching out to students, as well as to naturalized U.S. citizens it has worked with in the past, to help them access resources and fill out the census. Millman said advisers are using Zoom to help students in online English classes complete the census, and immigrants not in classes can request help by contacting the center.

“If the census doesn’t reveal how diverse this rural area is, we will all be the poorer for it,” Millman said.

Margaret Sawyer, co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said that before the pandemic, her organization was also planning to go door-to-door to meet with immigrant workers either at home or at their workplaces to help them fill out the census. Now, they’re doing outreach through phone calls — but they only have contact information for 300 workers. She also said there are many people who don’t have access to technology or feel less comfortable using it.

Sawyer said the center is still hiring outreach people but on a slower timeframe since there’s now more time to complete the census.

“Nothing in-person is happening, and in-person is the best way to connect with people who feel vulnerable with doing something they’ve never done before,” Sawyer said.

For more information about the 2020 U.S. Census and how to respond, visit census.gov.

Material from the Associated Press was used for this report. Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.
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