Gathering information for the Census is difficult enough to be limited to a once-a-decade project.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw an unprecedented wrench into the operation for 2020. And local and U.S. Census Bureau officials are concerned this year’s count, and the federal funding allotment it is used for, may suffer.

As of May 3, the national self-response rate, with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico included, was 56.8%. Maine ranks 48th out of 52 at 47.3%. Minnesota tops the list at 67.2%.

In 2010, Maine’s final self-response rate was 57.4%.

At 53.7%, Lewiston’s rate is above the state average but below the national rate, as is Auburn at 55.7%, Augusta at 55.5% and Bangor at 56.5%. Portland’s 57.1% is slightly above the national average.

“If you look at the community response and the national response, it certainly seems Lewiston is doing well,” said Dot Perham-Whittier, Lewiston’s community relations coordinator.

Those numbers are more encouraging given that the Census Bureau ceased all fieldwork on March 18, three days after it started, due to the pandemic.

But officials say they are having to adjust how they go about collecting the data and educating the public, particularly immigrants, on the importance of an accurate count.

“Where it’s hurt us is it has basically stopped all of our in-the-field activity,” Jeff Behler, New York Regional Director for the Census Bureau, said.

Behler said bureau officials are encouraged by how households are self-reporting. This is the first Census to offer filing via phone and the internet. The national response rate via the internet is 46.7% of all responses, 36.7% in Maine.

“We think we’re ahead of the game right now (with internet response rates),” Behler said.

But door-knocking operations to follow up on nonresponses that were scheduled to kick off in mid-May have been pushed back to August for much of the nation. Operations in Maine will get a head start, as the bureau announced on Wednesday that its office in Gardiner is among 23 nationwide being phased in to start field operations on Friday. Fieldworkers will follow federal, state and local restrictions when going door-to-door to drop off questionnaire packets, the bureau said.

Those follow-ups, referred to by the bureau as “update leave” operations, are vital in rural areas of Maine that have a high percentage of residents who use a post office box as their mailing address, Behler said. Those areas also frequently lack the technological infrastructure to make online responses possible.

For verification purposes, the Census Bureau only does mailings to homes. Roughly 5% of households are counted in “update leave” operations.

Behler said the bureau’s outreach efforts have also suffered in communities with large immigrant populations due to the outbreak.

This is the time of year the bureau works in conjunction with local officials and community leaders to get the word out about the census.

Behler said the bureau turns to “trusted voices” in large immigrant communities to deliver the message of the importance of an accurate count. It determines not only political representation but funding for programs and resources that are important to their community.

Usually, bureau outreach includes events where community leaders invite immigrants to ask questions about the census and receive assistance in filling it out.

With restrictions forbidding such large gatherings at a local library or community center, the bureau is trying to re-create them virtually.

Last Saturday, Ward 1 Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid hosted a Facebook Livestream directed at immigrants. She has also participated in a series of videos put out by the Census Bureau encouraging immigrants to get counted.

Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“A lot of people don’t know about it, especially immigrants who are new to this country,” Khalid said.

“We’re just trying to spread the message that, right now, it’s a really important time to fill the census out because all of the at-home funding we receive from the federal government is based on that data,” Khalid said.

When discussing how the data is used, Khalid said she emphasizes that residents need to fill the census forms out regardless of their immigration status and that the bureau is required to keep the information it collects confidential.

“Some people don’t trust the government, so privacy is a big thing that people ask about,” she said.

“Your privacy is protected. Your information is protected,” Khalid said. “It’s against the law for the Census Bureau to publicly release your responses publicly in a way that identifies you as a person or household.”

Khalid said the Census Bureau has made its online data collection more accessible for non-English speakers by offering its online forms in multiple languages. She would like the bureau to also make automated phone calls to households in the residents’ native language, much like local schools are able to do for important announcements or bulletins.

Ideally, Khalid would like the Census Bureau to have more time to assure an accurate count of immigrants.

Behler said the bureau has asked Congress for permission to push back the deadline to complete its field date to Oct. 31, which would allow for apportionment counts to be delayed from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021.

Behler said such delays will also be important in collecting information from other demographics such as college students, whose housing may have been disrupted when schools sent them home in March due to the virus outbreak. College students living off-campus must fill out a census form if they live separately from their parent(s) or guardian for the majority of the year, even if they are included in the count of their parent’s household, Behler said.

“It’s important for Maine that we count those students where they usually live or stay, even if they went home and were included on their parents’ form,” said Behler, who added students who live on campus are counted by their school and do not need to fill out a form.

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