Census Workers to Resume In-Person Visits to Boost Response Rate

An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident is shown in Detroit, Sunday, April 5, 2020.

An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident is shown in Detroit, Sunday, April 5, 2020. AP Photo/Paul Sancya


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About 40% of households have not yet responded to the 2020 census survey and the bureau estimates workers may have to visit 56 million households to follow up.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Census Bureau workers may have to visit as many as 56 million homes to collect responses to the 2020 survey from people who have not completed questionnaires.

In-person visits from census workers are typically the norm. But the pandemic has complicated the 2020 survey process and led the bureau to suspend field operations in March.  

Now the bureau is looking to resume these visits to homes that have not provided either online or written responses. Across the United States, approximately 62% of households have responded to the count.

The response rates vary across the country. Minnesota has the highest response rate, at 71%, followed by Wisconsin and Michigan at 68%, according to Census Bureau data. At 48%, Alaska has the lowest response rate of the states. Census operations began early there as numerous obstacles—including extreme winter weather, language barriers, and difficulties reaching isolated communities—make much of the population hard to count.

The overall response rate for the 2010 census was 74%.

Because of the scale of this year’s in-person operation, census workers will be sent out in staggered shifts, first concentrating in six areas: Beckley, West Virginia; Boise, Idaho; Gardiner, Maine; Kansas City, Missouri; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. In-person interviews will begin there on July 16. Outreach to nonresponsive households in the remainder of the country will be underway by August 11.

Two towns that census workers will be able to skip altogether are North River, North Dakota and Balltown, Iowa, where all households are reported to have completed the survey. Both towns have populations of fewer than 100 people.

In Chicago, local officials said the ongoing public health threat posed by the spread of the coronavirus has made the work difficult.  

“Let me be clear, the Covid-19 pandemic has made our efforts to achieve a high response rate much harder,” Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board, told a local CBS affiliate.

Elected leaders there are working with census officials and local community groups to redouble outreach efforts and to recruit more people to work as census takers.

Cook County’s response rate is currently 61%.

In Las Vegas, local officials combined census and coronavirus outreach efforts this week, distributing free face masks at a census informational event outside a local grocery store.     

The 2020 Census will be crucial in determining how hundreds of billions of federal dollars in about 300 programs are divided among states and localities in the years ahead, including those that provide money for highway construction, food stamps and health care for the elderly and the poor. An undercount of just 1% of the population could have dramatic implications for state coffers. 

This is the first year the census will primarily rely on online responses rather than paper surveys, and Census Bureau officials said more respondents were using the option than expected. Four out of every five households that have responded to the 2020 survey have completed the questionnaire online—about 9% above the bureau’s initial projections of online use.

When census workers visit households to conduct follow up outreach, they will follow local public health guidelines, the census bureau said. Workers have been trained in health and safety protocol related to the coronavirus and if masks are required in the region, the census takers will wear them when they visit households.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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