U.S. Census Bureau data shows that about two-thirds of Chatham County households have filled out their census forms, ahead of national and state averages.
That’s consistent with Chatham’s self-response rate from the 2010 Census, according to Courtney Cooper-Lewter, a management analyst in the Chatham County Manager’s Office. By the end of July in 2010, 66.7% had completed the census without a visit from a census worker.
The national self-response rate is 62.2%; in North Carolina, it’s 58.4%.
“We hope for better because we want to top our number from the last census,” she said. “But I think given the current circumstances with COVID-19, I am pleasantly surprised that folks are still continuing to fill out their census (forms).”
The United States conducts a census every 10 years to ensure communities receive proportionate political representation in federal, state and local government.
The census also decides how the U.S. distributes billions of federal dollars to states and counties, money that governments use to fund schools, road repairs and welfare programs like Medicaid.
That’s why undercounting Chatham County’s population could have serious consequences, Cooper-Lewter said.
“A lot of those programs support a lot of our Chatham residents,” she said. “If we do go undercounted, we run the risk of not taking care of our neighbors basically.”
In March, households began receiving postcards inviting residents to complete the census by mailing back the form, calling a number or filling out the form online. To raise awareness and encourage residents to complete the census, the Chatham County Manager’s Office partnered with other community leaders last year to form the Chatham Complete Count Committee.
But COVID-19 threw a wrench in things.
“We’ve had to transition and pivot a little bit,” Cooper-Lewter said. “We weren’t expecting this to happen, so we had a lot of events planned and a lot of events we’d planned on attending just to have some presence and answer questions for folks. But now most of our stuff has shifted to online, and we know that can be challenging for some Chatham residents.”
Beyond social media campaigns, newsletters and census commercials, she said they’ve partnered with schools, libraries and nonprofits to send out census materials — outreach efforts she said she thinks have so far been effective.
In June, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle held an event at St. Julia Catholic Church to distribute food to families in Siler City, and the committee partnered with them to distribute goodie bags with census materials alongside the food.
“Within a week, we had increased almost 1.5% from 64.7% to 66.1%,” she said. “Prior to that, we were only seeing 0.1 to 0.2 percent increases every couple of days.”
COVID-19 also forced some participating organizations, like the Hispanic Liaison, to shift focus during the first few months of the pandemic.
The Hispanic Liaison partnered with the county to encourage Chatham’s Latinx community members to participate in the census. Paola Rodriguez, the advocacy and civic engagement program manager, said they’ve posted a Facebook Live video with information in Spanish about the census and helped residents fill out the form, among other things.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Latinx population in Chatham County. More than half of the county’s total coronavirus cases have come from the Hispanic community. Many Hispanic residents have also lost jobs but are ineligible for stimulus checks or unemployment benefits because of immigration status.
Thanks to this disproportionate impact and the organization’s limited staff capacity, Rodriguez said the Hispanic Liaison has primarily been focusing on COVID-19 response calls and helping clients secure funds.
“People have actually been calling to fill out the census,” she said. “But I feel that as the pandemic has grown, people have sort of lost interest in it just because they have more business to deal with.”
After addressing clients’ problems, Rodriguez said she’d often bring up the census and offer assistance. But now, she said the Hispanic Liaison is just about ready to begin ramping up efforts to promote the census.
The pandemic also changed the original schedule. Normally, the deadline to complete the census was July 31. That’s been moved back to Oct. 31 now, Cooper-Lewter said, and the president will probably receive the census results by April 30, 2021, instead of Dec. 31.
“We’ll start to receive redistricting counts probably by the 31st of July (2021),” she said.
Under the original schedule, census workers would have begun going door-to-door in May to count households who had yet to complete the census independently. The pandemic has pushed that back to Aug. 11. Yet, rising virus cases might prevent census workers from visiting households, which could stagnate the county’s response rate.
“At the end of 2010, we had 66.7% self-responses, which is when people do it on their own,” Cooper-Lewter said. “But we finished the census time frame with 81 percent, so that was a significant increase from census workers coming to homes and helping folks fill out the census.”
Still, she said the committee has done a great job of adapting and trying to figure out how to best reach people in such a challenging time.
“Since the end of April, the numbers have slowed,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that we’ll have a last little push and be able to get as many folks counted as possible.”
To fill out the census, go to www.my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020. Additional information on the census can be found on Chatham County’s website.
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