Vermonters fall behind on filling out census
It might not sound like a lot, but when you’re dealing with everything else during the pandemic, that (Census mailing) can move to the bottom of the pile very easily.
— Rep. Peter Conlon
VERMONT — 2020 has been a historic year so far, to say the least. Yet, one historic milestone that comes only once a decade seems to be low on most Vermonters’ current lists of priorities: the federal census.
“With everything that the pandemic has disrupted, the Census is likely the last thing on people’s minds, yet it remains crucially important,” said State Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall.
With a little more than five months left in the calendar year, Vermont participation rates in the 2020 Census continue to lag behind the rest of the country; it ranks 47th out of 50 in terms of self-response. Local, state and federal officials across various sectors are pushing hard to encourage participation in hopes that, with phased-in, door-to-door headcount beginning next month, response rates will go up.
Vermont has a 55.7% self-response rate, which includes responses given via phone, mail or, for the first time in Census history this year, via the internet. Responses are higher in some Vermont counties, with a 71.7% rate in Chittenden County and only 35.5% in Essex County. Addison County boasts the second-highest response rate with 62.9%, just over the current national average of 62.2%.
Census participation is lagging cross the nation. Observers blame the low rate on coronavirus health concerns that have prohibited door-to-door census taking, which is usually carried out by local community members.
In a usual census cycle, door-to-door enumerators would currently be wrapping up their routes, said Jason Broughton, chair of the Vermont Complete Count Committee. Enumerators at this point would be tending to the last households that had responded to the packets of information mailed to them by the U.S. Census Bureau back in March. Enumerators would stop going door-to-door by August or September.
Instead, this year’s enumerators won’t start their activities in Vermont until Aug. 11, and have been instructed to go “full steam ahead” until October, Broughton said. This unusual timeline, necessitated by the pandemic, has even prompted the U.S. Census Bureau to seek relief from Congress in the form of an extension on final deadlines for reporting data to the president and the states.
Not having door-to-door enumerators can be a huge loss in getting participation from hard-to-count populations such as rural, isolated and homeless people, as well as certain communities of color, children and individuals who distrust government.
Jeff Behler, director of the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office, believes that this loss is a major factor for why participation rates across the country are behind. According to Behler, enumerators make it easy for people to respond by walking them through the process in person and being able to address any concerns they might have.
“What we’ve found is that it always means more when it comes from that local voice — someone who’s trusted within the community,” he said.
In addition to these obstacles affecting communities nationwide, Vermont has its own unique factors hindering participation.
Behler recognizes Vermont and some other states have historically participated at lower rates than others, saying that, “We try not to compare between states, because all states have different needs.”
Asked to suggest which Vermont factors might make participation particularly difficult, Behler and other officials pointed to its rural nature, which they said might make households harder to reach by census messaging — including mailed packets and online information.
In fact, Vermont counties with higher participation rates saw larger proportions of that participation coming in via the internet. For example, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, 88.9% of the responses in Chittenden County were made online, as opposed to only 43.7% of the responses in Essex County. Essex County in the Northeast Kingdom is also much more rural than Chittenden, with a 2018 population density of 9 people per square mile, compared to Chittenden’s 302.
This creates questions of access for communities that may have less high-speed, broadband internet.
“It’s a big problem for places who don’t have premium internet connection, because it makes it that much harder to respond online, so your only choice is to call or mail,” Conlon said. “It might not sound like a lot, but when you’re dealing with everything else during the pandemic, that can move to the bottom of the pile very easily.”
As a result, it appears some Vermonters are generally more reliant on the in-person enumerators, who haven’t yet been active.
The Census plays a huge role in calculating federal apportionments for everything from education funding and Medicaid to the Coronavirus Relief Fund, as well as determining districts and representation in state and federal legislatures.
“As a small state that doesn’t generate a lot of tax dollars, Vermont is dependent on federal dollars to a high degree, making it even more important that Vermonters participate in the census to make sure that we get our fair share,” Conlon said.
Conlon, who serves on the House Education Committee, also emphasized that the state Agency of Education receives about two-thirds of its funding from the federal government, largely for special education and medical expenses.
The Census is also crucial in how district lines are drawn and therefore how the people of Vermont are represented in the state Legislature.
“It’s extremely important that rural Vermont gets counted during the census, especially as demographics in rural Vermont are trending downwards,” Conlon said. “If a town is under-counted, it may get thrown into a larger pool of other towns geographically close for representation.”
The importance of the Census in federal funding and local districting has prompted a number of efforts for increasing Census participation, and July 27 marks the beginning of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Census Push Week for Vermont. During Push Week, more than 50,000 partners in the region, ranging from elected officials and public figures to local leaders and community organizations, will be carrying out different promotional events. These events include everything from email blasts and social media campaigns to local questionnaires with census takers and are intended to drive up self-response rates in the last week before door-to-door enumerators will begin their work in early August.
Broughton at the Vermont Complete Count Committee, which works at the state level to strategize and campaign for Census participation, reminds us of the importance of the Census as a Constitutional right and responsibility dating back to 1790.
“It is a Constitutional request, and it really is a civic duty, and we are focusing, under the constraints of the pandemic, on how we can communicate that to a variety of different entities with different needs.”
As Behler summed up, “Everyone has a voice, and every voice matters.”
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