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