Metro area leaders urge census participation

Effort to get accurate count is forced to adapt amid pandemic ripple effects

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As Jefferson County Commissioner Casey Tighe watched people stay at home and socially distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he couldn't help but see their efforts as an act of patriotism.

There's another way people can help their country during the crisis, he said, and that's by completing the 2020 Census, which launched as communities across the nation ramped up public health measures in connection with the pandemic response.

“Ask your family, your friends: 'Have you filled out the census?'” Tighe said.

While the census may not be top of mind for people amid the pandemic, as they worry about economic hardships and their health, local nonprofit and elected leaders are urging residents to use the extra time at home to partake in the “the gold standard” of data collection.

Gillian Winbourn is program director for Together We Count, a statewide nonprofit aiming to ensure historically undercounted people are represented in the 2020 census. Participation, particularly now, is paramount, she said.

“This is a way to help Colorado rebuild and make sure that it can get its fair share of support continuing for the next 10 years,” Winbourn said. “I think in a time like now, we can see how much we rely on services and the government services.”

Together We Count started in 2017 and will operate only for the duration of the 2020 census effort. The organization already expected challenges to the 2020 census because of distrust in government and the possibility that some people will face hurdles responding in new ways.

US Census

 

Before COVID-19 hit, the U.S. Census Bureau was already gearing up for people to respond online, by phone and by mail —for the first time in census history.

Together We Count focuses on reaching populations like renters, immigrants, refugees and people with low literacy — all demographics the census bureau defines as hard to count, Winbourn said. The nonprofit also adds older adults to that list and stresses that young children count.

“We knew that it was going to be a more challenging time,” she said. “Particularly with COVID, it's really affected the timeline.”

Gillian noted the census opened on March 12, shortly before social distancing measures took off.

Local governments and nonprofits had to scrap many of their traditional outreach methods to promote the census because of COVID-19, like providing education at community events and meetings. Many said they are now relying more heavily on social media to get the word out.

The U.S. Census Bureau adjusted its 2020 census operational timeline in response to the pandemic. Field activities are not likely to resume until June 1. The current deadline to respond is Aug. 14, said spokeswoman Laurie Cipriano.

As of April 13, the Colorado response rate trailed Kansas by less than 1 percentage point, coming in at No. 11 on the list of states with the best self-response date. Just shy of 52% of Colorado households had responded. The national self-response rate was 48%.

Within Colorado, two counties — Jefferson and Douglas — are neck-and-neck for the best self-response rate in the state, with both above 63% as of an April 13 report. Commissioners for each county said they are competitive and shooting for that No. 1 slot.

“If you're at home and you have access to computer and internet, you probably have some time to do it. It's a way to break up your day,” Tighe said.

But there's much more at stake than bragging rights, the commissioners stressed, as the census will determine how much federal funding is funneled down to local communities.

“There is so much that is based on getting an accurate count. We need to have a complete count and that means 100%,” said Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas.

Thomas, Tighe and Winbourn listed a slew of services impacted by the census.

Funding health-care clinics, Medicare and Medicaid, highways and transportation, disaster relief, educational programs, fire departments and human services are just some of the community services that rely on census data.

The data also informs the business community, such as helping grocery stores decide where to open locations, Winbourn said.

There's also the issue of representation in Washington.

Since 1790, the census has determined the number of seats a state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There's a lot of speculation that the state of Colorado is going to get an additional congressional district,” Thomas said.

Tighe said an accurate census count translates to an appropriate level of representation in Congress for the state and creates “a fair playing field around the country” if the nationwide count is accurate.

Under the adjusted census timeline, bureau experts will assess and deliver each state's population total, which determines its number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, to the president by April 30, 2021.

The president delivers apportionment counts to congress within 14 days. Redistricting counts are then to be delivered to states by July 31, 2021.

Completing the census takes minutes, Thomas said, estimating she finished in less than five minutes.

“It's really straightforward,” she said. “There's no trick questions. It's easy to answer.”

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