Texts, not door-knocks: Census outreach
shifts amid virus
By Mike Schneider and Terry Tang
The Associated Press
March 28, 2020
ORLANDO, Fla. ó In tiny Munfordville, Kentucky, the closure
of the public library has cut people off from a computer used
only for filling out census forms online. In Minneapolis, a
concert promoting the once-a-decade count is now virtual. In
Orlando, Florida, advocates called off knocking on doors in a
neighborhood filled with new residents from Puerto Rico.
Across the U.S., the coronavirus has waylaid efforts to get
as many people as possible to participate in the count, which
determines how much federal money goes to communities. The
outbreak and subsequent orders by states and cities to stay home
and avoid other people came just as the census ramped up for
most Americans two weeks ago.
Thousands of advocates, officials, and others who spent years
planning for the U.S. governmentís largest peacetime
mobilization are scrambling to come up with contingency plans
for pulling it off amid a pandemic.
"Right now, everybody is faced with figuring out how to
outreach to our communities not being face to face," said
Jennifer Chau, leader of a coalition of Asian American, Native
Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander organizations in Phoenix that
passed out 300 reusable boba tea cartons in January to anyone
who signed a card pledging to complete their census form.
Nonprofits and civic organizations leading census outreach
efforts are pivoting to digital strategies. Texting campaigns,
webinars, social media, and phone calls are replacing
door-knocking, rallies, and face-to-face conversations. But it
comes at a cost: Experts say connecting with trusted community
leaders in person is the best way to reach people in
hard-to-count groups that may be wary of the federal government.
"Itís making it exponentially more difficult to get the kind
of accurate count that is needed for this census. Thereís no
sugarcoating it. Itís really tough," said Arturo Vargas, CEO of
NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group. "Thank goodness
for technology. We wouldnít be able to do what weíre doing
Although the U.S. Census Bureau is spending $500 million on
outreach efforts, including advertising, itís relying on more
than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments, and
civic groups to encourage participation in their communities.
The groups are recalibrating their messaging to address the
upheaval in peopleís lives, including job losses and
stay-at-home orders, and to focus on how census numbers help
determine the distribution of federal aid or medical supplies
their communities may get during the coronavirus crisis. The
groups also are emphasizing that if people answer the
questionnaire online, by phone or by mail now, they can avoid
having a census taker sent to their house to ask them questions
come late spring and summer.
"We want people to understand that even though we have this
health emergency going on, thereís a connection to the census
with how the distribution of funds to states is all going to
rest on how many people there are in a community," Minnesotaís
demographer Susan Brower said.
The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional
seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as
the distribution of some $1.5 trillion in federal spending.
The coronavirus has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to delay
the start of tallies of homeless people and other transient
populations such as racetrack workers, college students,
prisoners, and nursing home residents. It has pushed back the
deadline for wrapping up the count by two weeks, to mid-August.
"Of all of our worst nightmares of things that could have
gone wrong with the census, we did not anticipate this set of
actions," said Al Fontenot of the Census Bureau. "But our staff
has been extremely resilient about looking for solutions."
On the plus side, more people at home now have time to answer
the questionnaire, and the deadline extension offers chances to
reach out to more people, Brower said.
In some places, outreach done well before the virus spread in
the U.S. is paying off, but organizers arenít sure it will last.
For the first week that people could start answering the 2020
questionnaire, New York City ó which had dedicated $40 million
to outreach efforts ó was well ahead of its 2010 pace of
self-responses. But now itís the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most
people, including fever and cough that clear up in two to three
weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with
existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness,
including pneumonia and death.
More than 30% of U.S. residents already had answered the
census questionnaire as of Friday, March 27. Most of the
temporary census takers hired by the government wonít be sent
out until May to knock on the doors of homes where people
havenít yet responded.
"We are trending much better than 10 years ago, even in this
craziness," said Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way
of New York City.
Thatís despite events meant to generate participation getting
cancelled or delayed.
Pittsburgh had commissioned Jasmine Cho, who uses cookie
decorating to highlight Asian-American and social-justice
issues, to lead decorating workshops with a census theme. An
October session drew almost 50 people and grabbed attention, but
workshops planned for March and April were cancelled.
"Iím hopeful that under the current quarantine measures, that
people will actually pay more attention to their census mailings
and take the time to complete it," Cho said.
The self-described "cookie activist" and the city are in
talks to make an online instructional video about census-themed
San Francisco was supposed to ring in Census Day on April 1
with one of its famous cable cars rolling through iconic
neighborhoods, but that became a casualty of COVID-19. Money
from a $3.5 million budget earmarked for food and venues for
census form-filling parties and town halls in the Bay Area will
now go toward video marketing and printed materials, according
to Stephanie Kim of the United Way Bay Area.
"Itís been hard to have to pivot on all the activities and
events they were planning for for a long time," Kim said. "So
many organizations had planned for big community get-togethers."
Terry Tang reported from Phoenix and is a
member of The Associated Pressí race and ethnicity team.