Online census rolls out, absent door-to-door and community outreach

04/01/2020

Here’s the invitation that United States Census Bureau field workers had hoped to deliver in person to your doorstep: It’s time to participate in the census. In March, field workers from the bureau began delivering door-to-door invitations to West Marin residents with post office boxes, but they were forced to stop almost as soon as they began. With the state’s shelter-in-place order in effect, the bureau has suspended all field operations, which throughout the country includes visiting 5 million households. But the count is continuing. Instead of waiting for the invitation to respond, residents now have a green light to fill out the survey online at 2020census.gov or by calling (844) 330.2020 for English or (844) 468.2020 for Spanish. The response period, which began March 12 and was set to end July 31, has been extended two weeks, to Aug. 14. “They might change the dates again, we can’t be sure,” said Stephanie McNally, a senior policy manager for the Canal Alliance, which received $120,000 from the county last summer to conduct outreach for all the county’s hard-to-count populations. “We already know West Marin is hard to count, and we are afraid that Covid-19 will make it even harder. We want to get out the word that it is still completely safe to participate, that you can do this online or on the phone.” As of March 29, the response rate along the Marin coast in Marin ranged from 1 to 8 percent. The pandemic has impacted local efforts aimed at increasing participation in the census, which guides how federal, state and county funding are allocated within a region, and determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress. The Canal Alliance partnered with West Marin Community Services to hold events and conduct in-person outreach in the most remote areas, such as the ranches on the peninsula. Yet those plans are on pause until further notice. Changing course, the groups fired up their social media, and last Friday sent out a postcard invitation to all West Marin post office boxes. Based on census data, Marin receives federal funding for everything from hospitals to affordable housing. For each person who goes uncounted, the alliance estimates the county loses about $1,000 in funding per year over the 10-year census period. “There is a lot at stake for West Marin,” Ms. McNally underscored. There are five census tracts in West Marin: one around Tomales Bay, Nicasio and Point Reyes Station, one in Inverness that stretches out to the point, a third in Stinson Beach and Bolinas, a fourth in Muir Beach and a fifth in the San Geronimo Valley. There are several reasons that West Marin is difficult to count, according to a working group convened by Supervisor Dennis Rodoni’s office last year. Among them are seasonal living, accessory dwelling units, remote land, the lack of mail delivery to homes, monolingual Spanish-speaking residents and subpar internet service—a particular problem for the first digital census. In 2010, the mail-return rate was slightly higher than 70 percent, with no areas exceeding 86 percent. The lowest rate, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay, was 64 percent. Other data suggests the initial response from these tracts was much lower. A national database recorded by New York University recorded a self-response rate—or the rate that people responded before prompting—ranged from 45 to 51 percent. Those are low numbers. In 2010, the average national self-response rate was 66.5 percent.