By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas News Service
Amid a pandemic that has slowed efforts to count Americans, more than a third of Kansas households haven’t yet responded to the U.S. Census.
One recent, high-profile example: Medical supplies that Kansas received from the Strategic National Stockpile to combat COVID-19 went out to counties based on their 2010 Census counts.
As a whole, Kansas’ 65% rate so far is slightly ahead of the national response rate. But participation in the census varies dramatically so far, even within individual counties and towns.
Take Dodge City. Some census tracts in the area have topped 75%. Others, in the town’s south, remain around 40% or 50%.
Those areas include neighborhoods with lots of newcomers to the country, and lower-income areas such as mobile home parks, according to Blanca Soto.
Soto leads the push for census participation in the southwest part of the state for Kansas Appleseed, a group that focuses on poverty, access to food, and other issues.
Though this year marks the first time people can fill out the Census online, many families don’t have computers or smartphones. Others haven’t taken the U.S. Census before, and don’t know how the count works. Those with family members in the country illegally might be especially fearful.
“With the immigrant community, trust (in) the government is a problem,” Soto said. “They don't really feel comfortable giving out their personal information, for fear that the information will be shared with immigration services or the police department.”
By law, the Census Bureau must keep people’s responses confidential. The information cannot be used by immigration or law enforcement agencies.
The pandemic has postponed much of the work that grassroots groups and community leaders envisioned for promoting the census, forcing them to adapt.
“Unfortunately, southwest Kansas is also one of the hotspots for COVID-19, which kind of complicates our work,” she said. “We are kind of just waiting for it to be pretty safe to go out in person, to talk to families and the community.”
When coronavirus shut schools down, Kansas Appleseed put explainers and stickers about the census into the lunches that many families still picked up each day.
The group has also taken to the airwaves on popular Spanish-speaking radio programs, and released videos in other key languages — such as Arabic, Somali and K’iche’ (a Mayan language from central America).
Other hard-to-count groups include very young children, military families and college students.
College students should count where they live during the school year, says Emily Kelley, who coordinates outreach work for the U.S. Census Bureau in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Normally, census workers go door to door in college communities during the spring semester to help make sure that happens. COVID-19 not only threw a wrench in face-to-face visits, she said, it also meant many students didn’t return to their college towns after spring break.
“K-State students comprise almost half of the population in the city of Manhattan,” Kelley said. “So making sure we count them is really, really important.”
The Census Bureau wants college students to fill out their forms with the address they would have occupied on April 1, had the pandemic not shut down their schools.
Kansas receives billions of dollars each year tied to census figures.
More than 300 federal programs rely on the Census Bureau’s decennial count to guide spending, including dozens aimed at supporting rural communities. It steers dollars for everything from water and road infrastructure to libraries.
George Washington University researchers looked at a handful of major health programs — including insurance for children — for 2015. It pegged the stakes for Kansas at about $30 million in annual lost funds for each 1% of the population that goes uncounted.
“We hoped we would be over 80% response rate at this time.” said Wendi Stark, who coordinates census outreach efforts for the League of Kansas Municipalities. The pandemic forced them to rethink. “Our goal is to make sure that we have over 80 percent by July 31.”
In August, census workers will fan out to homes that haven’t replied. The more people reply by phone or mail, or online, the less knocking those workers will have to do amid a pandemic.
Census workers will keep knocking on doors through October.
Many rural areas with low response rates in Kansas depend heavily on P.O. boxes for mail delivery. That complicates matters because census workers had to hand-deliver packets to homes there instead, hanging them on doors or gates. This year, the pandemic pushed that work back until May, meaning many homes only received written notice a few weeks ago.
Soto remains confident that response rates will climb once volunteers and census workers can get out more.
Kansas created committees across the state this year to loop neighborhood groups, pastors, doctors, educators and others who have the trust of their communities into the work of spreading the word.
“For a lot of the Latino communities,” she said, “schools are a really trusted voice. What the school says, they know that it's going to be true and it's going to be reliable.”