With millions of federal dollars and boundary lines for congressional and legislative districts at stake, U.S. Census self-response rates in Mesa and nearby municipalities are past the half-way mark.
But they’re not anywhere as comprehensive a tally as officials need to ensure they get all the money they’re entitled to.
Census Bureau data show only 57.8 percent of Mesa residents have responded to the simple online questionnaire at 2020census.gov. That percentage is still above Arizona’s 54.4 percent response rate and ahead of the 57.7 rate for the nation.
Gilbert leads the East Valley with 69.1 percent, followed by Chandler with 65 percent. Phoenix is at 55.9 percent while Queen Creek is at 60 percent and Scottsdale 58.6 percent.
Maricopa County’s 58.9 response rate could spell big trouble, according to the Fair Census Project and Civis Analytics – a national consultant-software company that helps government, agencies, nonprofits and businesses with data analytics.
They estimated that Maricopa County would sustain the second most serious financial impact from an undercount among all counties in the nation.
Getting an accurate and complete count in the once-a-decade census is even more difficult this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Census Bureau last month delayed at least until Aug. 11 door-to-door visits in Arizona to pick up the many stragglers who have failed to go online and complete the brief questionnaire at 2020Census.gov.
“Because the duration and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be highly unpredictable, it’s critical (people) are reminded of the easy option to self-report to the Census online,” Census Bureau supervisor Nuvia Enriquez said.
“The more people self-report right now, the lower the risk will be for Census workers later on.”
“It’s imperative that we get an accurate count,” Enriquez added. “Data collected from the Census will be used over the next decade to determine funding allocations for social services, disaster relief, education, and more. As millions of Americans are sheltering at home, one of the most important civic duties that we can all do is self-respond to the Census.”
She stressed that the results also determine “how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated to more than 100 programs, including Medicaid, Head Start, block grants for community mental health services, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”
“The nation now has more than 75,000,000 households who have completed the Census with the state of Minnesota leading the way,” Enriquez said.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a nationally recognized census expert in Connecticut who was a senior staffer to the congressional committee overseeing the Census, said the Covid-19 crisis has created an “unprecedented challenge” to an accurate count – and at precisely the worst time.
“The Census Bureau was just launching its peak operations, and within days had to pull back from any activities involving personal contact,” she said.
Besides citizens who might not want to open their doors to Census workers – just as they were reluctant to answer when candidates for political office knocked to get signatures for their ballot petitions – the bureau could find few staff willing to venture into the field and risk coronavirus exposure, she said.
In addition, workers are being stymied in their efforts to reach traditionally undercounted minority and immigrant populations because traditional gathering places like churches have been shut down.
Lowenthal called those closings “equally consequential” to fewer door-to-door visits that could lead to a “significant distortion of the Census.”
“A vast and unprecedented network of national, state and local organizations was going to team up when the Covid response had to end much of those plans,” she said. “This massive effort in the works for years came to a halt. The public health crisis clearly has had an effect on this crisis.”
Ironically, an undercount also will affect future disaster aid from FEMA, which is currently trying to address shortages of protective gear and other issues related to the pandemic.
The Trump administration has asked Congress for a 120-day data collection extension and delivery of redistricting data to the state by July 31, 2021.
A Census Bureau spokeswoman also said her office “is adapting or delaying some of our operations to protect the health and safety of our staff and the public and make sure we get the same population counted another way.”
Current plans are for all Census employees to return to their workplaces but rely on “the most current guidance from authorities to ensure the health and safety of staff and the public.”