America’s mayors are scrambling to get every dollar they can as coronavirus pummels local budgets, and they risk losing even more if they can’t get historically undercounted communities to participate in the census, whose deadline is fast approaching.
What’s at stake is both political representation and a share of the trillions of federal dollars over the next decade that will be distributed based on population. An undercount in communities that have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus could exacerbate the very inequities the virus itself has exposed.
Mayors hurtling toward the deadline are contending with the pandemic, a shortened timeline for the count and President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Leaders who planned to spend months this year leading outreach efforts, only to be sidelined by the disease, are now cramming that work into mere weeks.
“It’s an enormous amount of pressure,” said Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, Calif. “I’ve been telling folks that we have multiple crises happening: We have Covid-19, we have racial injustice, we have the economy and, here in California, we have the wildfires. The other crisis that is in front of us that is not getting as much attention is the census.”
This census could prove to be a slow moving catastrophe for many communities. The consequences of an undercount can be severe and long lasting, affecting both state and congressional redistricting for the next decade and leading to a drop in federal aid that could force major spending cuts in already strapped cities.
All of that would play out just as state and local governments try to move on from the pandemic and dig out of the new financial crisis, which has left them pleading with Congress for a $1 trillion bailout that may never arrive.
Local efforts to boost census participation have been disrupted across the country by Covid-19, which has killed more than 178,000 people in the U.S. Stay-at-home orders and prohibitions on large gatherings forced groups to scrap planned get-out-the-count events. Advocacy groups focused on the census warn that historically undercounted communities — low-income, immigrant and rural communities, communities of color and American Indian and tribal communities — are poised for severe undercounts this year.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of stress layered upon our families,” said Maria Regan Gonzalez, the mayor of Richfield, Minn. “And in the midst of everything, the census is not gonna be front and center for so many people because there are some very real issues, like their health, like their home, like access to food, like child care, like their employment, that are taking precedent over the census.”
There are already clear signs that inequities are emerging in the count with five weeks left to complete the survey of America.
Ten states have matched or surpassed their 2010 self-response rates so far: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia and New Hampshire. The national response rate was at 64.5 percent as of Monday, the last day for which data is available, a mark that exceeds more than half of the states in the U.S.
But the response rate is 7 percentage points lower in predominantly Hispanic communities, 10 points lower in predominantly Black communities and slashed in half in American Indian and tribal communities, according to Beth Lynk, campaign director for the group Census Counts.
In interviews, mayors working to boost participation in historically undercounted communities said the messenger has proven more important than the message. Members of immigrant communities, in particular, have been hesitant to respond to the census after Trump’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the survey.
After completing training, Regan Gonzalez, the first Latina mayor ever elected in the state of Minnesota, began volunteering this week to make phone calls to Hispanic constituents.
“As a Latina and as a Spanish speaker, a lot of people in my community know who I am and trust me, and so getting a call from their mayor and asking them to fill out the census and answer any questions they may have, I think it’s really worthwhile for my time,” she said. “We’ve booked out time every single week from now until the end of the census.”
John Giles, the mayor of Mesa, Ariz., a city whose population is nearly 30 percent Hispanic, said two city council members who were born and raised near the border and speak Spanish are trusted messengers with credibility in Spanish-speaking communities. He said the Asian Chamber of Commerce and faith and ethnic groups are also aiding the city with outreach.
“I’m not the face of this campaign in our community,” said Giles, a white male Republican. “Probably every city in the country, I would imagine — or most — have complete count committees, and we’re no exception. But our attitude has been, every dollar that we spend on the census is gonna come back many times over. So we haven’t been shy about committing city resources and regional resources to publicity campaigns, to social media campaigns, any kinda grassroots partnerships we can have.”
In many cities and states, census engagement and participation was years in the making. But nobody planned for a pandemic. Mayors, nonprofits and other census advocates have decried the Trump administration’s new deadline to complete census data collection. The timeline was extended to Oct. 31 due to the pandemic, but then pushed up to Sept. 30 earlier this month.
Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., said he doesn’t believe there’s enough time to ensure an accurate census count. “It’s simple math amid the circumstance that the entire country is facing,” he said.
“We’re gonna do our darndest with whatever challenges we face,” he added, “but 30 days is not a lot of time.”
The Census Bureau this month began deploying staff to visit households that haven’t already completed the form on their own. But given the pandemic, recent civil unrest, anti-immigration policies and distrust of government, many mayors are worried about the effectiveness of that outreach.
According to the Census Bureau’s tracker, census takers’ home visits have accounted for 12 percent of housing units counted since the in-person work began on Aug. 11.
“People, for the most part, they’d like to avoid somebody knocking on their door,” Giles said. “That’s not the way that most people want to participate.”
As of last Sunday, 80 percent of the self responses — from more than 93 million responding housing units — have come from the internet, while 18.5 percent have come from paper submissions and just 1.5 percent from phone calls, according to Census Bureau data. And 40 percent of U.S. adults told Pew Research Center in a survey released late last month that they wouldn’t be willing to answer their door for a census worker.
Garcia, the Long Beach mayor, said the rushed Sept. 30 deadline is an “attack” on working-class communities, immigrant communities and communities without internet access that feels “intentional.”
“Filling out the census is not your priority when you’re just trying to survive,” he said.
In New York City, where the self-response rate is 4.2 percentage points below its final 2010 count, several organizations and local officials didn’t just blame the federal government and the pandemic for upending outreach efforts. They also blamed the state. The city’s extensive census outreach kicked off in January, before the pandemic halted the endeavor.
Several areas in the city that census advocates have flagged as historically under-counted constituencies have been engaging at lower rates than in the last decade’s count. The Sunset Park neighborhood, which is experiencing a spike in coronavirus infections, has participation rates well below those recorded in 2010 — by double digits in certain tracts. The area is home to many Asian and Latino immigrants.
Some said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which set aside $30 million to support outreach efforts but didn’t release a dollar until the end of July, should have done more to help.
“We all understand the state has had to deal with the pandemic, and there’s a lot to commend the state for. But the census is not one of those things,” said state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, whose Brooklyn district includes parts of Sunset Park. “The census has not been a priority for the state. The areas that are undercounted have been even less of a priority.”
Other states that have managed to boost their response rates have worked aggressively to do so. Minnesota, which set aside $1.6 million for census mobilization, also hired tech contractor Granicus to send nearly 1.4 million text messages at the beginning of April, as well as emails to more than 155,000 recipients. That and other initiatives boosted the state’s participation rate 2 percent in three weeks. The state currently has the highest self-reporting rate in the country, at 73.5 percent.
“Minnesota’s been working on this for a very long time,” said Andrew Virden, director of census operations and engagement at the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Groups in the state began planning for the 2020 census as early as 2015, he said, adding, “There’s no substitute for time.”
But efforts at the state level haven’t necessarily translated into high participation rates for historically undercounted communities.
Take Wisconsin, which trails only Minnesota for the nation's highest participation rate. In Milwaukee County, where 27 percent of the population is Black, the self-response rate is 17 points below neighboring Waukesha County, a higher income, overwhelmingly white county. And in Michigan’s Wayne County, where almost 40 percent of the population is Black, the self-response rate lags neighboring Oakland and Macomb counties — also higher income areas that are 75 and 80 percent white, respectively — by double digits.
Across the country, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods with little access to the internet have seen response rates drop by more than 10 percent on average compared to 2010, according to a report released this month by UCLA. In more rural areas and on American Indian tribal land, where census materials are often physically dropped off, responses have plummeted by nearly 20 percent.
Paul Ong, a researcher at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs who worked on the report, said it’s difficult to quantify what sort of chilling effect the Trump administration’s efforts to remove undocumented immigrants from the count have had. But he said anecdotal evidence points to immigrants being “particularly leery of completing the form.”
“If we don’t have an accurate count, and if we particularly miss the disadvantaged populations who are in need, then it’s those neighborhoods that will be cheated out of money that should be going there,” said Ong, who has served as an adviser to the Census Bureau.
In a statement to POLITICO, the Census Bureau said it was supplementing its in-person efforts with phone follow-ups and voicemails, questionnaires and emails. It is also deploying staff to grocery stores and other public venues to help people respond on site in low-responding areas.
The bureau also said it has “focused extensively” on hard-to-count communities through partnerships and a messaging campaign to reinforce that responding to the census is safe.
“Responses can only be used to produce statistics and not for law enforcement purposes, and cannot be shared with other agencies including ICE and law enforcement. Census Bureau employees take an oath to protect this personal information for life,” the bureau said. “The best way to avoid being visited by a census taker is to respond online, by phone, or by mail. However, we take every precaution when going door to door.”
Though the administration ultimately didn’t include a citizenship question on the census, Regan Gonzalez said it incited fear, scaring immigrant communities into not participating. And she maintained that the risks of an undercount are high for the most vulnerable communities.
“When we don’t have a strong and accurate understanding of who our community is, we obviously can’t make good decisions as leaders and as government, and then we don’t end up having the resources that we need to fully serve, include and reflect our actual community,” she said. “It just perpetuates the cycle of inequities, systemic inequities, when the foundation of a lot of our decision-making, of where our money comes from, of how we decide where to allocate resources, comes from the U.S. census.”
This article is part of The Fifty, a POLITICO series that looks at how state and local leaders are responding to current national challenges, from the pandemic to the economic crisis to the reckoning with race. More coverage of these issues here.