Covid-19 Poses New Challenge For 2020 Census

Tuesday, March 24th 2020

The Covid-19 outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time for the U.S. Census rollout. Complete Count Committees across Central Texas had already begun getting the word out about the census by handing out flyers at churches, mosques and school events. But with group activities curtailed and a new shelter-in-place order out from the mayor’s office, chances to get the word out to historically undercounted communities are dwindling.

Decibel host Judy Maggio talks with John Lawler, census program manager for Travis County, about what efforts are being put in place to make sure everyone gets counted.

Judy Maggio: I guess the big question is, tell us how this pandemic has impacted your efforts to reach out to people and have them comply and fill out their U.S. Census forms.

John Lawler: Sure, it's definitely been a game-changer. And just to be clear about one thing, I do not work for the U.S. Census Bureau. I work for the city of Austin and Travis County. So, we are a local effort that partners with the Census Bureau. Our local effort was started about nine to 12 months ago by our county judge, Sarah Eckhardt, and by our mayor, Steve Adler. They came together and put together a really great community coalition. And since that time we've been trying to get them ready to do things like door-to-door canvassing, event-based flyering, talking with folks at trusted locations like public libraries and healthcare clinics. And, of course, those strategies have gone out the door in the last two weeks as everything's changed.

JM: Tell us about the timeline and how that's been tweaked, because I know a lot of us got these in the mail. I think they went out March 12th. Originally, I think April 1st was the time when folks would start going out in the community. So tell us how that timeline's been tweaked because of Covid-19.

JL: Sure, and it's been tweaked pretty regularly. So, what has changed is that self-response period has been extended at least another two weeks. April 1st is no longer Census Day. What has also changed is a lot of the other more specialized enumeration practices, like our service-based accounts. So, going out with service providers and counting certain populations. Group quarters, so places where there's a large group of people based, they can have an administrator count them. And similarly, our folks experiencing homelessness.

There was a very large effort being planned in partnership with different service providers, constable offices and local advocates to get over 200 folks out there in the field counting our folks who are experiencing homelessness. That has now been paused for the next couple of weeks, as well.

All this has built up pressure such that the Bureau, now, has also extended the overall timeline for the census. It had been that July 31st would be our last day for someone to get counted. That's now been pushed back two weeks to mid August. That's kind of the big picture game changes. You now have two additional weeks going into mid August, but it does not change any of the urgency of trying to get folks to take it today.

JM: So it sounds like a lot of that door-to-door activity you're trying to do online and virtually, because that's where everything's moved, right?

JL: Yes. It's wild to think what has changed just in the last week and a half. I mean, I can dig into multiple examples, but we had created these different community groups, Community CCC's. That group went and prioritized building infrastructure in different, hard-to-count communities, specifically the largest ones like American Latino, African American and Asian American. The foundation of each of those game plans was door-to-door, in-person communication. That's the really unfortunate thing is that we were about to kick that off.

JM: Wow. John, one of the things we focused on at Decibel was the hard-to-count communities. We've done a story with the Asian community and this is a group that already has a lot of distrust of the government for historical reasons, obviously. I'm wondering if that's gotten worse with Covid-19 and some of the comments that have been made about China, and China being the source for the virus. Have you heard anything about that?

JL: Well, I think some of those community leaders, like the ones you spoke to, would be best to address that. You know, what they're feeling personally. I do know that group has been the most vocal on our action team about reacting and being responsive to the Covid-19 outbreak. They were some of our strongest advocates, locally, trying to pursue the Census Bureau extending its timeline because they were witnessing the effects of Covid-19 on their community. You know, the leadership of that Complete Count Committee, the Asian American one, is really an amazing one, and very diverse. You have folks from all over, different parts, in terms of their family origins from Asia. A lot of different languages, a lot of different cultures, and what was always really beautiful was seeing everyone teaming up, going out.

One of those examples was just before the Covid-19 measures started to come into place. I know that local CCC's were going out to mosques and handing out flyers to folks as they were leaving. That's an example of a really great tactic that we were really excited to help support. You know, our county-wide effort printed and provided the bookmarks and leaflets that they were handing out. We still have printed those things, we just need to figure out how we're gonna get them to folks.

JM: I don't think a lot of people realize that Texas was one of a handful of states that did not take federal dollars to educate the population about how to fill out the census, why it was important. So, you all at the local level have really done a great job banding together nonprofits, raising money, and now, I'm sure it's a little frustrating that some of this is being unraveled or at least delayed because of this pandemic.

JL: Sure, I think frustration's the right word. Especially these folks that have been working so hard over the last year before there even was a county-wide effort. There's folks who have really been pouring their hearts and souls into this and some of them look at me and say, "I won't be here for the next census likely, so I'm gonna give it everything I've got now." So I think frustration is the right word, and I think that also applies to what the state of Texas did.

It is frustrating. I don't understand why, and I won't try to assume why the state of Texas didn't put any dollars into outreach and education or even form a volunteer committee. That was one of the interesting things, to me, is that there wasn't even any action to form a body to help coordinate things.

I can tell you, early on, when I was first getting my feet on the ground here locally, I was calling around to different cities and counties and I was like, "How are y'all approaching this?" It was definitely patchwork. Certain areas in Harris County and in Houston, they were really the gold standard. They'd invested millions of dollars, formed a grassroots coalition group called Houston in Action that was really the tip of the spear on going door-to-door. We based a lot of our efforts after that initiative.

We've been really lucky we've been able to partner with those different counties and cities, but the bright side I will really focus on is that had we not spent the time these last three to four months building out these Community CCC's, creating space, having leaders step up to lead their communities, help build those budgets and strategies, we'd be in a much worse place right now, because we would not be able to react and respond nimbly like we are right now. We're able to look at these different community groups and say, "How do you want to change it?"

JM: The other positive side, this was already a very data driven effort. You had helped design this data that mapped out where the hard-to-count communities were, where the outreach needed to be, so that must be a plus to have all that data in your hands when you know this is gonna have to be more of a virtual reach out to people.

JL: Absolutely, you know, it's kind of funny in these kinds of campaigns, these efforts, as I'm sure it is with any industry, business, or governmental effort. You don't always know why you're doing something, but you know it might come in handy down the road.

JM: Yes.

JL: One of the things we did about four or five months ago was form that digital team. We had some really amazing volunteers from different nonprofits, different city and county departments on board and a particular group, Open Austin, which is a chapter of the Coders for America which has a national emphasis on trying to use digital and technological tools for the census.

We had some leadership from them on this team. They helped us build that map that you described. It not only identified where those hard-to-count folks were, which the Census Bureau was already showing us, but what it also did was explain to us what the variables were, and the measures were, that were making that census tract or that neighborhood hard to count.

That was really important to us. Not just to know that folks were having a difficult time getting counted, but why they were having a difficult time getting counted. Once we did that, what we found was, universally, lack of internet access was a huge issue universally, limited language proficiency, specifically English, and then that they were recent transplants, that they were moving around from apartment to apartment.

The number one correlation between somebody being hard-to-count was actually their status as a renter or homeowner. So that was gonna influence a lot of our strategies of focusing on apartment complexes and rental properties first, and then, moving into single family homeowner neighborhoods. Given all that, unfortunately, we can't do the door-to-door canvassing like we hoped, but our goal definitely is still that. As we roll out these digital ads, for example, one of the projects that our community CCCs undertook with a voluntary film production crew was creating local PSAs and they're all very different.

JM: Public Service Announcements

JL: Yes, and they were scripted by, produced by and filmed within those community leaders. We're now taking snippets of that. We've developed a relationship with Statesman Media, which is the advertising arm of Austin American-Statesman. They will be placing digital ads on folks' mobile devices because if they don't have an internet based subscription, they're likely to, at least, have a mobile based subscription. We will place those ads on folks' mobile devices within those specific neighborhoods. So we're still using that data. It won't be door-to-door, instead it will be placed in these digital ads on folks' phones in those neighborhoods with the content developed by these grassroots groups.

JM: John, remind everyone why this census data is so important 'cause it really does impact so many aspects of our lives.

JL: It's huge and it's hard to get your mind around just because there are some very big buckets we can point to. We can point to hundreds of billions of dollars that are guided by census data. Those are things you can see with your own eyes. You wake up in the morning, the person who plotted that development or that neighborhood likely looked at census data or growing demographics trends to decide whether or not to build that neighborhood or that apartment. Perhaps, the financing to construct that apartment complex was determined by the growth in the Austin area.

Then, when you jump in your car and get on the road, or get on the bus, federal transportation dollars are funneled through the state of Texas using census data. I know that some of our council members represent farther flung parts of Austin and Travis County. They're very adamant about wanting more fresh food stores in their locations. Well, we need to make sure we get people counted because if stores don't know that there's that many households to support their business, then they won't exist there.

Whether or not we get folks counted, that child will still need a subsidized lunch at school. Whether or not we get folks counted, that bus will still be crowded. That cost and that burden of providing those resources that are necessary for us to exist will fall upon us as a locality. So, either we get a fair count now, or we suffer the consequences over the next ten years.

I haven't even touched on political representation, which interestingly enough, when we've gone out and talked to different communities in the area, this is not the number one concern, but those lines, those congressional district lines all the way down to school board trustee lines are drawn with census data. That's incredibly important at a time when we're having some closures, and people are wondering if certain parts of the community are or are not being represented. Then also, for the city of Austin, there is a redistricting commission that uses census data to draw districts specifically for opportunities for folks who are not Caucasian White Americans to get elected. If those populations don't get counted, they don't get fair representation here, locally, on city council. It's a really important issue that I think a lot of times folks either don't understand or I even have a hard time wrapping my mind around all the different things that the census data actually touches.

JM: Much like the pandemic, it seems to be reaching every aspect of our lives. Final question, John, give us some nuggets that you just want people to understand and know because I know everybody's confused about a lot of things right now because our world is changing. What are the nuggets of wisdom that you want people to know about as we move forward and they get these things in the mail or they're contacted online, or someone in their community reaches out. What are the basics?

JL: The most important thing I think folks could hear right now is that you don't need that envelope. You don't need that letter from the Bureau to take the census. You do not need an online ID, you just go to, select that you don't have your ID, and you can take it. It takes less than ten minutes. That's the biggest piece of information is just go online right now and take it. Go on the phone and take it. Don't have the number to call? Call 211 and the local 211 operator will connect you with the Census Bureau or provide you that number. There are many ways that you as an individual can spread the word to try to get our numbers up. And third, and most importantly, if you wanna become a volunteer, just go online to our website. Get involved. Sign up, and we'll plug you in for sure.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity *

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