ST. LOUIS – April 1 is officially 2020 Census Day, when each U.S. resident is counted wherever he or she is living. The national census, done every decade, is always an extended process; but this time the count may be impeded by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In St. Louis, Mayor Lydra Krewson is calling on city residents to do their part.
“Today, I’m challenging everyone in St. Louis to please fill out your census!” Krewson said Wednesday via Twitter. “It’s so important for determining how much federal funding will flow into our City for programs that affect all of us! You can do it online in just a few minutes!
“Then wash your hands!” the mayor added.
As of Wednesday, the city has a 30 percent response rate compared with a statewide rate of 38 percent. Krewson pointed out that for every person who responds to the census, the city receives about $1,300 a year in federal funding.
The nation is almost paralyzed by the spread of the coronavirus. But census officials vowed the job would be completed by its year-end deadline.
The virus’s spread has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to mid-April, when the hiring process should ramp up for as many as 500,000 temporary census takers.
The bureau has also delayed the start of counts for the homeless and people living in group quarters such as college dorms and nursing homes, and pushed back the head count’s deadline from the end of July to mid-August.
The Census Bureau is required by federal statute to send the president the counts that will be used to carve up congressional districts — known as apportionment — and draw state legislative districts by Dec. 31. Some groups are suggesting the deadline be pushed back, though it’s mandated by federal law.
“We are laser-focused on the statute’s Dec. 31 deadline for apportionment counts and population counts. We will continue to assess all of our operations to see if there are any changes that need to be made,” Michael Cook, chief of the bureau’s Public Information Office, said Tuesday.
The census started in late January in rural, native villages in Alaska, but the rest of the country wasn’t able to begin answering the questionnaire until the second week of March, when the bureau’s self-response website went live and people received notices in the mail that they could start answering the questions. But that was only a week before many governors and mayors started issuing stay-at-home orders to slow the virus’s spread, greatly hindering in-person rallies, meetings and door-knocking to raise awareness about the census.
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.
“Certainly when folks are anxious about the public health issue, and kids are away from school, and they’re being away from work, it’s a concern that the census isn’t on top of people’s mind as you would want it to be,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The U.S. Census Bureau is spending $500 million on outreach efforts and relying on more than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments and civic groups to encourage participation in their communities. But those efforts have been hamstrung by the virus shutdown, so some are going digital.
Most census takers won’t be sent out until late May to visit homes where people haven’t yet answered the questions online, by telephone or by mailing back a paper questionnaire. Until then, the bureau is pushing people to respond so they won’t have anyone knocking on their doors. As of Tuesday, more than 38 percent of U.S. households had already answered the questions.
The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of about $1.5 trillion in federal spending.
Researchers at the Urban Institute worry that changed accommodations in response to the coronavirus may present a distorted picture of where people are living on Census Day. Some people left their usual residences to move in with parents or elderly relatives, escaped to vacation homes or had to move because they couldn’t pay rent due to jobs lost during the pandemic, they said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.