COVID-19 impacts North Carolina’s response rate for 2020 U.S. Census

North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – The deadline for the 2020 U.S. Census has been extended until the end of October because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of early May, 52 percent of households in North Carolina completed the survey. Nationally, 56 percent of households have responded.

The results of the 2020 U.S. Census will have effects on North Carolina’s future, financially and politically, for the next decade. It will also determine the level of federal response during natural disasters or pandemics, like COVID-19.

The North Carolina Governor’s Census Liaison, Bob Coats, says the Tar Heel state could gain a lot through an accurate, updated population headcount.

“The census is required by the U.S. Constitution to distribute seats in the House of Representatives, and estimates show that North Carolina may gain another seat due our population growth, but we need an accurate count to ensure that. Census data also brings more than $1,800 per person per year of government funding back to North Carolina communities for things like health care, schools, highways, and more,” Coats said.

When the Food and Drug Administration approves a COVID-19 vaccine, the latest census data for North Carolina will influence how much of it will be set aside for the state. It will also impact future COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government.

“The 2020 U.S. Census will be the foundation for emergency assessment for the next decade. Census data helps to identify at risk populations and where they are located. A census undercount provides inaccurate data to emergency responders.  Whether the emergency is a pandemic or a hurricane, being counted in the census is an investment in the future protection of your community. Communities will need census-guided funds to recover from COVID-19,” Coats said.

The census takes about 10 minutes to complete. In North Carolina, households started receiving paper invitations in March. People can also respond by phone or online: by clicking here.

Legally, participation in the U.S. Census is mandatory, even though it is widely known that not everyone chooses to complete it. That’s where outreach groups come into play, relying on their events and door-to-door visits, which play a significant role in tracking people down. Stacey Carless is the Executive Director of NC Counts Coalition. It’s a nonprofit, community partner formulated for the purpose of getting neighborhoods to participate in the 2020 Census. Right now, the pandemic has forced her organization and census workers across the country to suspend in-person visits, a practice that was halted in the middle of March. Door-to-door outreach, on behalf of the census, will resume in June across North Carolina. Once jump-started, representatives will be wearing personal protective equipment, including gloves and masks. All census workers will have a picture ID badge with the U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date.

“The pandemic is definitely having an impact on participation. We don’t have in-person community outreach. And, folks are dealing with a lot right now: they’re dealing with unemployment, they’re dealing with their children being at home, and working from home, and balancing multiple things at the same time. So even though the census is easier than ever, we also recognize there’s a lot of stuff on people’s minds right now which may prevent them from participating right now,” Carless said.

Carless says whatever state you were supposed to be in on April 1, 2020, is the state where you should be counted. The pandemic could have shifted a person’s plans, such as a college student who attends a North Carolina university, but, might have returned to their out-of-state childhood home to complete the rest of the semester, online. In a case like this, Carless says that college student should be counted in North Carolina.

“This is literally a snapshot of North Carolina on April 1, we have nothing to lose, only to gain. It’s for funding for your community,” Carless said.

When it comes to who can participate, everyone can. Regardless of citizenship status, age, or race.

Some of the concerns expressed to Fox 46 Charlotte about the census, were the questions on the survey, which include age, race, gender, Hispanic/Latino Origin, and the family relationship of everyone in the household. Some felt the requested information was intrusive, and, were wary about where their answers would ultimately end up. In response to these concerns, census representatives stated that the information is confidential. Summarized data and overall statistics are made public, however, your individual responses are protected by federal law and not accessible to other agencies.

Carless says people should think about what’s at stake if they’re not part of the official census headcount.

“This is money that’s given to us from the federal government for school lunch programs, healthcare, unemployment insurance; it’s for a lot of programs that we care about. The federal government needs to know how many people you have in an area because decisions are based off of population,” Carless said.

Mecklenburg County relies on census data to influence local decisions, including transit routes.

“CATS uses census data to determine the likelihood that people in certain areas would use transit and uses that information to redesign the entire bus network,” said Tanisha Anderson, Public Information Specialist for Mecklenburg County.

The census also helps prospective companies identify if they’d want to set up shop in the Charlotte area, and if so, in what neighborhoods. Anderson says grocery chains such as Lidl and Aldi used census data when opening up stores.

“Grocery store chains use census data to determine where their stores will be located, so they can reach the most customers,” Anderson said. “Nine of the 22 total stores that Lidl and Aldi have in the region are located in “food deserts,” areas with low access to full-service grocery stores.”

Census representatives say the government relies on self-reporting to get an official headcount because it allows people to provide the latest, real-time information, regarding where they should be counted. 

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