Urban Wire How NNIP Partners Are Helping Communities Pivot 2020 Census Outreach to Hard-to-Count Groups
Olivia Arena, Kathryn L.S. Pettit
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Census forms

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted years of planning and preparation for 2020 Census mobilization efforts, with communities nationwide now looking for innovative ways to reach hard-to-count communities.

About 61 percent of households have responded to the 2020 Census so far, but the rates are uneven across counties and neighborhoods. Many of the places with lower response rates represent traditionally undercounted groups, and changes to in-person outreach efforts and an extended time period could exacerbate undercounts. In particular, communities of color are historically underrepresented in the census and are suffering disproportionately during the pandemic.

With the deadline for in-person enumeration recently pushed to October 31, 2020, communities must balance using existing funds on revamped virtual engagement strategies or waiting to see if future in-person events can go on as planned. Any events scheduled for late summer or fall also will have to compete for attention with get-out-the-vote efforts for the November presidential election. As long as in-person engagement remains untenable because of the pandemic, existing strategies cannot be implemented in the same way.

What strategies are communities using to increase 2020 Census counts?

Members of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a network of local organizations committed to using local data to advance equity, coordinated by the Urban Institute, were already playing key roles in 2020 Census complete-count efforts. Now, these organizations are using data to help their communities adapt get-out-the-count strategies.

Repurposing previously planned activities

Although they may look drastically different, previously planned activities are still important to get-out-the-count efforts and may be repurposed to support COVID-19 response and recovery. Census efforts now need to be more strategic in using resources, and curated, real-time data can help concentrate efforts and identify collaboration opportunities. CI:Now in San Antonio created an online data tool to help local partners monitor response rates and finely target outreach strategies. The interactive tool displays response rate trends for the county, cities and towns, and census tracts and compares current response rates with 2020 goals and to the 2010 mail return rate while highlighting key undercount indicators.

In New Orleans, the Data Center created maps for local coalitions to identify areas that may need additional support for census outreach and included community assets, such as schools, that could support COVID-19 efforts. The Data Center also included COVID-19-specific questions related to the census on their evolving FAQ webpage.

Pivoting amid new conditions

As our world shifts, strategies for reaching people where they are must change. Some local communities, like in Detroit and New Orleans, are distributing materials on the 2020 Census with direct relief assistance, such as passing out flyers with meals from food banks.

Other changes include the potential expansion of internet and computer access  for families with school-age children. With the introduction of the digital response option, many advocates were concerned about exacerbating disparities, as many households do not have the resources and comfort to fill out the 2020 Census online. But in response to COVID-19, efforts to provide free or discounted internet and devices to support tele-learning have expanded, which may provide more families access to complete the census digitally.

With more virtual engagement efforts, social media and digital communication play larger roles, and coalitions are switching plans for in-person engagement to text and phone banking campaigns. In New Orleans, local groups, such as the Power Coalition for Equality and Justice and the Urban League of Louisiana, used April 1, “Census Day,” to launch social media campaigns, including an tele-town hall for historically Black colleges and universities. Other NNIP Partner staff are adding census reminders to their email signatures and email threads. 

These new conditions have also exposed new vulnerabilities in census counting, with unpredictable residency affecting plans for community outreach. College students are historically miscounted, and the closure of college campuses meant many students moved from their dorms or off-campus homes back to their family homes. In Minneapolis, the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs created an online map that shows major disparities between the high-responding tracts, including the nearly 89 percent response rate in a more affluent census tract compared with several tracts adjacent to the University of Minnesota with less than 45 percent response rates.

NNIP partner staff have prepared and sent out guidance to local universities’ administrations for students on how to complete the census. In Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center has produced materials that provide guidance on how students should complete the 2020 Census to be counted in the right place.

What’s at stake?

The importance of the Census cannot be overstated. Having an accurate picture of our country's communities and their respective needs will be essential in recovery and rebuilding efforts, allocating funds for existing government programs, and appropriating congressional representation.

Traditionally undercounted communities, especially communities of color, are at serious risk of losing valuable government supports while they are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic’s health and economic effects. Local community leaders are on the frontlines of efforts to mitigate COVID-19’s effects on the 2020 Census, and they cannot afford to let up on those efforts. Local organizations should look up their area’s current response rate and get involved in their local Complete Count Committees or other grassroots efforts.

Communities will need to think creatively about how to adapt existing strategies to reach hard-to-count groups, and data can be a tool to help guide outreach and track progress towards an accurate count.


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Tags COVID-19 National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) 2020 Census
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Research Methods Research methods and data analytics