By Alexander Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
The spread of the COVID-19 virus, nationwide stay-at-home orders, and social distancing guidelines have forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations until Apr. 15. This delay has caused some to wonder whether states that have reported a significant number of COVID-19 cases, like Washington, will be accurately counted in the 2020 Census.
Lisa McLean, the 2020 Census coordinator for the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM), said that state officials are especially worried about counting people who did not self-respond to invitations to complete the 2020 Census.
“The state is concerned that the Census Bureau does not have adequate plans in place to gather information from those who do not self-respond, especially if the social distancing orders continue into the summertime.”
“The self-response percentage for the census tract that includes the International District is 40.3%, well below the statewide average and city of Seattle average of 59.1%,” Chinese Information and Service Center Executive Director Michael Itti told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
In March, every household in the United States received a request to complete the 2020 Census online, by mail, or over the phone. However, the start date for census enumerators to go door-to-door to collect data from individuals who did not self-respond has been extended by several weeks to Aug. 11 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The deadline for enumerators to complete these follow-up interviews was continued to Oct. 31. While the deadline for delivering each state’s population totals is currently Dec. 31, President Donald Trump announced in a news conference that the Census Bureau plans to pursue legislation from Congress to delay this delivery deadline until April 30, 2021.
“In addition, while millions of Americans continue to complete their questionnaire online, the Census Bureau has asked Congress for a 120-day extension. I don’t know if you even have to ask them. This is called an act of God. This is called a situation that has to be—they have to give it and I think 120 days isn’t nearly enough,” said Trump.
In-person encounters with enumerators are critical to obtaining an accurate count of minority groups, like Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), who tend to be more skeptical about the importance of the census, according to polling. Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a nonprofit organization focused on the civil rights of Asian Americans, is concerned about the delay of field operations.
“While AAJC supports the Census Bureau’s delay of Nonresponse Follow-Up (NRFU) until the public health circumstances improve, we are concerned that an insufficient NRFU operation would mean a failed 2020 Census. Getting as close as possible to a full and accurate count of historically undercounted populations, especially Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, immigrants, and children is critical for a successful 2020 Census.”
The self-response data for Washington state has been encouraging so far. Washington’s 53.8% census self-response percentage is better than the national census self-response percentage of 48.1%. While there is no specific data available as to how different racial groups are self-responding to the census questionnaire, counties with large AAPI populations, such as King, Thurston, and Snohomish counties, have self-response rates that exceed the state average.
Jeff Enos, deputy director of the western census region for the Census Bureau, is also optimistic. He said the Census Bureau is emphasizing the ease of self-responding through a targeted ad campaign directed at AAPI populations. Though field operations have been suspended, Enos said that the Census Bureau is still working with partnership specialists and nonprofit agencies to educate Asian communities about the value of completing the census. The Census Bureau is still recruiting for its field operations and expects to resume hiring enumerators as soon as shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
“We are confident that we will be able to deliver a full and accurate count.”
State agencies have also adjusted their approach in response to the dramatic change in American life. The OFM had planned parties and large gatherings with cities, counties, libraries, and nonprofits to promote the census. McLean indicated that OFM has shifted its focus to highlighting the importance of self-responding with advertising, public service announcements, and the distribution of flyers to restaurants still providing take-out services.
“We are trying to do everything to convince people that self-response is in their best interest as it influences investments in and the political power of their communities for the next 10 years.”
Essential workers are not subject to Washington’s stay-at-home order. However, there is not much of an appetite among federal and state officials to send enumerators to the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle as essential workers. Enos and McLean maintained that protecting the safety of census staff and the public and following health guidelines were their top priorities.
Toshiko Hasegawa, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA), told the Northwest Asian Weekly that CAPAA is pursuing a blended approach of new and old strategies to reach counties with large pockets of AAPI populations. Hasegawa advocated for innovative solutions for communicating with AAPI communities by offering access to free mobile internet hotspots.
Alexander can be reached at email@example.com.