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Who’s that knocking? The census goes door-to-door

Be part of the count

Online: My2020census.gov

Telephone support: 866-330-2020 (English), 866-468-2020 (Spanish)

California Census 2020 info: census.ca.gov

Ronald Reagan’s tongue-in-cheek warning – that there’s nothing scarier than a man at door who says he’s from the government and wants to help – gets a workout every 10 years, when the federal census takes place. That’s when platoons of temporary “field enumerators” are deployed throughout the country to knock on doors and nail down basic census information, in accordance with Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Every 10 years the U.S. government conducts a census of all residents in the nation, a federally-mandated task to accurately count how many people are living where, for the primary purpose of allocating representation in the U.S. Congress. The data is also utilized to allocate federal and even state funds. The census has successfully been taken every tenth year since 1790, but in 2020 it’s being put under unusual pressures.

Though the effort to collect an accurate count includes only basic information, such as name, age and where the individual was on April 1, 2020 – the official census date – the data collection is often regarded skeptically by some, and never more so than this year. Under-reported numbers are often found in harder-to-reach populations – people of color, immigrants, renters, rural residents and other historically marginalized groups.

But according to Diana Crofts-Pelayo of the state’s Census 2020 office, skepticism about the census, and a stubborn non-compliance response, extends even into neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach, and exclusive San Francisco districts.

“We noticed that trend, and all of a sudden this announcement hit us,” said Crofts-Pelayo.

Earlier this month, suddenly and without warning, the Census Bureau cut short the period allowed for collecting information, moving the deadline from Oct. 31 back a month, to Sept. 30. The traditional deadline of July 31 had been extended three months due to the pandemic to allow a longer period to gather information from “non-responding households,” those that have not already mailed in their census form or filled it out online at my2020census.gov.

But on Aug. 3 the bureau’s director, Steven Dillingham, decided that in the interest of reporting the census results to the president by Dec. 31 – the usual year-end deadline, in non-pandemic periods – the bureau needed to conclude all tabulation by Sept. 30.

“We were very surprised to hear the U.S. census bureau shortened their deadline,” Crofts-Pelayo, assistant deputy director at the state’s California Complete Count - Census 2020 office. “Cities and counties are partners and need all the time necessary to assure a complete and accurate count.

“Federal partners agree with that sentiment,” she added.

In response, the Census Bureau had launched a national effort to redouble their data collection, adding “new ways to contact the approximately 34 percent of households that have yet to self-respond,” according to the bureau’s media spokesman in Los Angeles, Joshua Green.

Additional letters to non-respondents, email outreach, a mobile questionnaire assistance program in locations such as grocery stores and pharmacies in low-responding areas, and an expanded advertising campaign are some of the ways the census bureau hopes to gather as many numbers as it can – all these in addition to the field enumerators who go door to door at addresses that have not yet filed census information.

“Enumerators are friendly and nice people, but it’s really easy to fill out the census online,” said Crofts-Pelayo. The non-response follow-up period in California, complete with door-knockers from the government, began Aug. 11. Indeed, the walk-through census form at My2020census.gov (available in multiple languages) asks only a handful of questions such as name and age - and it doesn’t ask income, religion, political preference or if the respondent is a citizen.

The Trump Administration has previously “politicized” this year’s census, pushing to include a question about citizenship on the official form. That 2019 effort was dropped after extensive public pushback.

As the state ramps up its census efforts for a final push before a Sept. 30 counting deadline, additional hires are being made in Sacramento to fully staff the California Complete County – Census 2020 operation. Among the recent hires is Nour Benomar Maxwell of Santa Rosa, who was named program manager for Region 2, which includes Sonoma. Maxwell, a former diplomat from Morocco, worked for Sonoma County last year as communications and community engagement coordinator—specifically on the upcoming census.

Be part of the count

Online: My2020census.gov

Telephone support: 866-330-2020 (English), 866-468-2020 (Spanish)

California Census 2020 info: census.ca.gov

The U.S. Census Bureau has lined up 970 census takers on the ground for Region 2, a seven-county area including Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties. They began work on Aug. 9.

Crofts-Pelayo emphasized that the state census offices rely on local partners to reach local residents. “We hope the people we hire are a reflection of the people they serve. At the end of the day, they will be the voice of their community.” The Region 2 partners in Sonoma are United Way of the Wine Country, in Santa Rosa.

“Our focus has been reaching the populations that are least likely to respond with information about the benefits of being counted and the importance of maximizing the number of Californians enumerated in the 2020 Census,” said Nicollette Weinzveg, Health Program Officer with the regional United Way.

She cited the “fantastic work” that La Luz Center has done engaging the Latinx community in Sonoma. “They created a Loteria game to make census education more accessible and engaging, as well as their phone bank canvassing, neighborhood virtual events and more action.

Calling it a “guerrilla-style tactic” to get down into the communities, with community members, is the strategy that local offices employ to make sure their counts are accurate as far as possible, said Crofts-Pelayo.

“Don’t let the government erase your importance, don’t let the government speak for you,” she said, warning that “there are tactics the U.S. government uses to fill in data gaps when people don’t fill in their own census information,” through algorithmic projections and the like.

She insisted, “The highest quality data will always come from people filling out the census in the privacy of their own home,” either at mycensus2020.gov, or by returning the form mailed to all households in March – before the end of September.

Or with the help of a trained enumerator who knocks on your door, because he, or she, is from the government and just wants to help.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the types of questions asked at mycensus2020.gov.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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