Will COVID-19 Strike the Census?
How Austin is adjusting its strategy to ensure every resident gets counted
One potential casualty of the COVID-19 crisis is the decennial census – the universal count and data collection of all U.S. residents, which dictates how nearly $9 trillion in federal funding is doled out to states (per a George Washington University study of 2016 Congressional spending), about $59 billion of which would go to Texas alone, and some in turn to Austin. The census also determines who represents states in Congress; Texas is expected to gain an additional two or three seats based on the 2020 count, and data collected on population growth and movement will inform policy and research for the next decade.
Normally, much of that work is performed or confirmed by door-to-door canvassing. But under pandemic conditions, says John Lawler, census program manager for Travis County and the city of Austin, in lieu of that "preferred strategy" of one-on-one connections, local paid and volunteer census-gatherers are moving to online and telephone approaches to reach as many people as possible.
"People can still do something," Lawler said, and "take action into their own hands." The easiest way – for those with online access – is to visit ATXCensus2020.com and follow the instructions for online, phone, or mail responses. You can also answer the census by phone at 844-330-2020, or call 211 for help. The pandemic is also dominating media coverage that might be directed toward reminding people to fill out the survey. The Census Bureau reports that as of March 30, Travis County had a self-response rate of 32.5%, compared to 31.3% statewide.
Lawler has recruited a volunteer network of dozens of organizations – Latinx, African American, Asian American, churches, LGBTQ – with organizers deciding the best approach for their specific community. (Materials for volunteers to use in outreach are also available on the website.)
Much of the outreach work these groups were doing was in person. The Census Bureau defines some groups (racial and ethnic minorities, undocumented immigrants, people earning lower incomes, and anyone who moves often, among others) as "hard to count" because they are either "hard to locate, hard to contact, hard to interview, or hard to persuade," per bureau documents. The specialized outreach designed by each group depends on trust between "hard to count" populations and those asking them to take the census.
The Housing Authority of the City of Austin, for instance, hired residents to serve as "Count Coaches" – trained census ambassadors who went door-to-door at HACA properties answering their neighbors' questions about the census, why it's important, and addressing any concerns. The questions included things like "Can I count individuals in my household if they are not listed on the lease?" (yes) – things that people may only bring up with those they trust.
Instead of going door-to-door, HACA began equipping their Count Coaches with computers and webcams in mid-March, so they could begin digital canvassing instead. "We've been training coaches on how to use GoToMeeting and screen sharing," HACA Community Development Director Leilani Lim-Villegas told us on March 13. "We sent them home with loaned laptops that have webcams, so they can practice digital canvassing they'll be doing safely in their homes."
In response to the pandemic, the "self-response" period now runs through Aug. 14, with "non-response followup" by canvassers (initially by phone and mail) will run from May 7 through Aug. 14. "We're doing phone calls, preparing handouts, finding various ways of getting people plugged in," said Lawler. "What makes this local effort different from the official federal effort, is that it's driven from the bottom up. We've asked community leaders to find the best strategies that work for them, when people reach out for services. That's bigger than just the census."