COVID-19 adds another barrier to census effort in southwest Kansas
Blanca Soto and Tammy West share information about the 2020 census during an event in February at Eryn’s Downtown Center in Dodge City. (Kansas Appleseed)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Blanca Soto is southwest Kansas campaign director at Kansas Appleseed.
For most households, completing the 2020 census is quick and easy. But for some it isn’t, and households in rural areas are particularly prone to circumstances that can hinder getting a complete and accurate census count.
For Vicky Ortiz, a member of the Dodge City Complete Count Committee, this year will be the first time she participates in the decennial census. Vicky recalls getting information about the census in 2010, but she didn’t participate.
“I didn’t understand the importance of the census for my community, and how many of the services in the community are paid by census funds, including many of the services we offer at the library,” said Ortiz, who has been employed by the Dodge City Public Library for almost 20 years.
Ortiz is not alone. She is among the 35% of Dodge City residents who were not counted in the 2010 census. She didn’t participate because she was not as familiar with the census and its value, and when something is not important to you, it’s easy to dismiss it.
Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates a count of the country’s population once every 10 years. All answers to the census are safe and confidential. Census data not only determines the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and redraws legislative districts, it determines how federal funding will be distributed to communities across the nation for essential resources and programs, including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, rural education, small business grants, public libraries and Head Start, among others.
For every resident who is missed in the census, communities will lose $2,180 per year for the next 10 years. That is millions of dollars in services and resources our communities desperately need. If census distrust and indifference remain high, a significant undercount could take place again this year.
The southwest part of the state is home to many hard-to-count communities where people like Vicky may be apprehensive about responding to the census. These include undocumented and documented immigrants, non-English speakers, Kansans living in poverty, rural households and minorities.
As of July 20, just over 65% of Kansas households have completed their 2020 census, but response rates are noticeably lower in rural parts of the state. In Ford County, the response rate is only 57.6% after more than a year of intense census outreach. Worse yet, only 36.5% of Kearny County residents have responded. These response levels are a big contrast to the northeast corner of the state, where most counties are right behind Johnson County, which leads with a 75% response.
Response rates in communities like those in southwest Kansas have been historically low due to a number of well-known factors, including mistrust of government, limited broadband and lack of awareness. If these barriers weren’t enough, the census count has been affected by concerns about COVID-19. Some counties in southwest Kansas continue to see a rise in cases, and local governments and volunteers have put on hold many of the planned census outreach strategies.
To help with social distancing, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau incorporated two additional methods for responding to the 2020 census. In addition to mailing the census questionnaire, households have the option to complete forms electronically at my2020census.gov or by phone, using a 12-digit code provided by the U.S. Census Bureau on an initial invite mailed between mid-March and early April (if the code is unavailable, households can instead use their address).
The U.S. Census Bureau also launched a special operation called “Update Leave” in rural areas where mail traditionally is delivered to post office boxes. This effort is expected to reach about 6.8 million households. Because the Census Bureau will never deliver census questionnaires other than to physical residences, forms in “update leave” areas were to be hand delivered by census workers in April. However, due to COVID-19, census takers did not start visiting households until July 16.
In rural Kansas communities, census advocates and volunteers are working hard to bring awareness of the 2020 census and its impact to hard-to-count communities. Because of the pandemic, they had to adjust their efforts from door knocking and community events to texting platforms and social media campaigns. Self-responding is very important during the pandemic. Everyone needs and deserves to be counted. If you haven’t already, please respond to the census at my2020census.gov. You have until Oct. 31 to respond.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find more information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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