West Marin’s census response still well below national average

08/12/2020

The United States Census Bureau is ending its counting efforts a month sooner than previously announced, and West Marin’s response rates are still far below expectations. With seven weeks until the count ends, fewer than four of 10 households in coastal Marin have completed the survey. The San Geronimo Valley is doing a little better, with more than half of households responding, but the area is still under the national response rate of 63 percent. On Tuesday, census takers began visiting households that have not yet responded, and local community organizations are continuing their outreach. “We know for a fact that there’s a lot more people living out here than are counted in the census,” said Heather Oakley, who is heading outreach for West Marin Community Services. “And it’s becoming really clear that the census builds in inequities in counties.” The message from organizers has been that if people take 10 minutes to answer 10 questions, their community can receive another $10,000 in services. But organizers have encountered many challenges in getting people to fill out the form online, especially amid a pandemic. Planning that started last year was grounded in the idea of having trusted people reaching out to their neighbors to say the census is a safe way to get essential services. The Marin County Free Library and the San Geronimo Valley Community Center planned to set up computers for people to come in and use, but physical distancing rules made in-person outreach almost impossible. Now, census takers are also facing an earlier deadline. The bureau originally set an end date for completing data collection and apportionment counts by April 2021 because of Covid-related delays, which meant counting would end on Oct. 31. But last week, the bureau directors announced the process would instead wrap up by the legal deadline at the end of the year, so field counts and self-response options will now close a month earlier, on Sept. 30. The change prompted four former census bureau directors to write a letter criticizing the change, saying it would lead to incomplete counts and even greater under-representation of hard-to-count populations. Organizers are hoping to reach those populations before the deadline. “It gives us the inspiration to really stay on it, and keep doing the work, because we know how important it is” said Dave Cort, the director of the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. Social media and food drives have been key for distributing information, and in-person conversations still play a role. Last week, West Marin Community Services hosted a pop-up information center in Bolinas, and this week, employees are holding a second pop-up at the Tomales Town Hall food bank. When people stop by the Point Reyes Station office for food or resources, employees discuss the census and ask them to fill it out right then and there. Staffers are phone banking and putting up banners, too. Over-the-hill residents who get mail directly to their homes have received flyers from the census bureau, but in West Marin, where mail is delivered to post office boxes, the only promotion has come from nonprofits like the Canal Alliance. West Marin usually relies on senior volunteers, but older people have been sidelined during the pandemic. Poor internet also makes it harder for some people to respond. Ms. Oakley said that her experience leading the census outreach has shown that the count is not just a dry governmental process; it matters. She teared up when she helped a homeless woman fill out the form, because of the bravery it took to list her address as a street corner she often sleeps at. “The feeling of being counted is really profound,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or why you are here, it’s just, ‘Are you here?’” To complete the census, visit my2020census.gov. If you have questions, call or email Heather Oakley at (415) 663.8361 ext. 303 or hoakley@westmarincs.org.