The city’s 2020 census efforts shift dramatically in response to COVID-19

The city’s 2020 census efforts shift dramatically in response to COVID-19
Image/U.S. Census Bureau

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Every 10 years, the federal government undertakes the massive effort of trying to count every person living in the country as part of the U.S. census.

Under normal circumstances, the process can be a challenge. But with ongoing social distancing measures put in place due to the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, the U.S. Census Bureau and the city have had to fundamentally change their approach to the 2020 census.

“We basically have had to throw about 90 percent of what we’re doing out the window and restart anew,” Councilor Canek Aguirre, who serves on the city’s Complete Count Committee, said.

Although the strategy is different, the goal is the same: Count every resident.

The importance of that seemingly simple yet overwhelmingly complex task can’t be overstated. The census is just a nine-question survey, but the results contribute to the nation’s largest demographic tool and impact localities in very concrete ways.

“For us, one of the most important things about the census is it provides a count for our jurisdiction. And that count means we receive federal dollars from the government so that we can fund very important services and programs that Alexandrians count on,” Brandi Collins, city demographer, said.

Residents received invitations to respond to the census between March 12 and 20. The invitation provided information on how to fill out the survey at, since the U.S. Census Bureau transitioned the form online for the 2020 census.

Although the shift to digital ostensibly makes the process more convenient for some, it poses a technological barrier for many others, especially seniors and those who don’t have internet access. Residents can still fill out the form by phone or mail, and areas that are deemed less likely to respond online received paper questionnaires alongside the invitation.

After the initial wave of self-reporting, the Census Bureau typically sends census enumerators to households that haven’t responded to conduct in-person interviews; however, the Census Bureau suspended all in-person interviews on March 27, according to a news release. The self-reporting deadline still remains June 30, while the response collection deadline was pushed back to Aug. 14.

Based on the census count, local governments get federal funding for programs and infrastructure improvements that benefit every member of the community.

In 2018, the city received $39.7 million in federal funding based on the numbers from the 2010 census. That money funded Alexandria City Public Schools’ student lunch program, transportation improvements like bus shelters, professional development for local firefighters and the city’s homeless shelters, among other things.

At the state level, the census count determines how many representatives states get in the House of Representatives. While at the local level, the count also allows the city to better understand its residents and where specific areas of need might be.

“Just from our own city government perspective, it allows us to make good policy decisions about where services are needed or what level of service is needed based on true information about whose living in the community at a given time,” Collins said.

(Read more: Beverly Hills combines social distancing and interactive art)

The census is a massive undertaking, one that provides a regular set of challenges, particularly around reaching hard-to-count populations. In Alexandria, historically hard-to-count populations include seniors, children, renters in multifamily buildings, non-English speakers, low income residents and black and Hispanic residents, Collins said.

For these groups in particular, getting counted is vital. If a community is undercounted, it means it won’t receive the resources and attention it needs from the local or federal level.

A current challenge remains the pervasive fear that some residents have, especially those in the Hispanic community, of the federal government.

“It is hard. People are afraid of the whole immigration issue, and we have been targeted for the past four years,” Evelin Urrutia, executive director of Tenants and Workers United, said.

Prior to more stringent measures put in place by the federal and state government that limited the size of public gatherings, the city had a comprehensive plan to get residents and hard-to-count groups engaged in the census.

The city partnered with community organizations like Tenants and Workers United and trained community members as census ambassadors to put a friendly face to the census for members of those communities that might be hesitant, fearful of or just not knowledgeable about the census.

Although the census does not contain the controversial citizenship question that the Census Bureau proposed in March 2018, the city is still dealing with the fallout from that proposal.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the damage was done just by putting that out there, so people are fearful of that, essentially,” Aguirre said.

The city’s message around the census is that it’s safe, quick and easy, Collins said. The data is confidential for 79 years after the census has been completed and it can only be used to produce statistics, according to the Census Bureau. There are also severe penalties including fines and jail time for census workers who share confidential information.

“Your answers can only be used to produce statistics — they cannot be used against you in any way. By law, all responses to U.S. Census Bureau are kept completely confidential,” Leslie Mann, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Cen- sus Bureau said in an email.

The city had initially planned on holding “be-counted events” at recreation centers and multifamily buildings where residents could come and fill out the census on iPads or laptops provided by the city. The aim was to provide a comfortable, safe environment where people could fill out the form.

Unfortunately, like most plans the city had around the census, those events have been waylaid by the coronavirus.

The city had 13 “be-counted events” scheduled for three days in April. Those have now been rescheduled to May 30 and June 6.

“I think we lose an opportunity to have people physically go somewhere and have engagement. Since it is online this year, we really wanted to help people physically do that and provide resources for people to do that,” Collins said.

Census ambassador training sessions have transitioned to a webinar that can be emailed to those interested in receiving training. The city had already partnered with T.C. Williams High School’s production team to create informational videos about the census, and now those videos will become even more important for spreading the word.

But, in light of social distancing and Gov. Ralph Northam issuing a stay at home order for the state of Virginia on Monday, staff have had to rely even more heavily on old school outreach methods.

The city sent print materials – fliers, posters and brochures – to around 88 properties that were either committed affordable, populated by hard-to-count groups or accepting of Section 8 vouchers. Staff have emailed fliers to every single multifamily rental property in the city, regardless of income level.

To reach seniors, Collins and her staff partnered with Senior Services to provide census information in their upcoming newsletter, informing seniors they can fill out the survey over the phone.

The socially distant world that the coronavirus created has also provided new opportunities for the city’s census efforts.

Before ALIVE!’s large scale food distribution on Saturday, Aguirre delivered census materials to the organization to hand out at the event.

After contacting ACPS, Aguirre dropped off census fliers and brochures, which are multilingual, at all of the school division’s food distribution sites.

The city had planned on having ACPS students fill out postcards as an art project and send them home to remind their parents about the census. The day staff was printing out the postcards, ACPS announced it would be closing down, leaving 8,100 blank postcards in Collins’ office.

Those postcards will now be available at the distribution sites, and students are encouraged to fill them out and post them on social media using the hashtags #alexcounts and #take10forcensus.

The city is pushing those hashtags as part of a concentrated social media blitz called #take10forcensus. Based on #take10forpublichealth, the idea is to get people sharing pictures of themselves filling out the census on social media to raise awareness and let people know it’s easy and quick, Collins said.

Although she doesn’t think the current situation will impact the city’s initial self-reporting numbers, Collins worries that delays in the Census Bureau’s process could impact the final tally, she said.

In 2010, Alexandria had a 73 percent self-response rate and a 76 percent overall participation rate, compared to the state’s 69 percent self-response rate and 70.5 percent overall participation rate.

As of Tuesday, Alexandria had a 39.1 percent self-response rate, compared to Virginia’s 38.7 percent self-response rate.

“I think it’s going to impact the overall number that we have at the end because the census is going to start later with their enumerators,” Collins said. “The self-reporting rates I don’t think will be impacted too much, but the final count might be impacted.

“We’re just hoping that through the efforts of the individual Complete Count Committee members, the work we’re doing as staff and the work that Canek is doing through ACPS that we’ll be able to make some positive moves forward, although we’ve really just had to scale back what we intended to do,” Collins said.