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Census could be greatly affected by crisis

In the galaxy of disruptions caused by COVID-19, the ramifications for the 2020 Census might be one of the more enduring.

The Census Bureau announced March 15 that it was suspending field operations for Census workers until at least April 1. The Census forms the basis for near-innumerable social and economic programs for localities over the following 10 years, and an under-count can cost counties and municipalities millions of dollars in federal and state benefits and financial transfers over the following decade. It is also used as an evaluative tool by companies seeking new locations for business.

The 2020 Census has the advantage over previous head-counts of being digitally-oriented – notices went out last week encouraging all residents in Washington County to log in with a unique passcode and spend about 10 minutes filling out household information, a significant gain in efficiency that makes it easier for people to respond and less labor intensive for the bureau to enter data.

There are, however, an unknown number of households that won’t respond – about a third of Washington County residents don’t have home access to broadband service. In 2010, the initial response rate in the county for mailed Census forms was 69.6 percent.

The Census Bureau was banking heavily on a solid electronic response this year, and the online response has become even more urgent now. The bureau had originally planned to send an army of field workers out March 15 to start follow-up work but has suspended that operation until at least April out of concern for the health and safety of its workers and the general public.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Al Fontenot, Jr., associate director of decennial program for the bureau, said more than 18.6 million electronic responses had been filed as of that morning.

A significant impact on Marietta could be an undercount of Marietta College students – the college has suspended in-person instruction for the rest of the semester, and classes are being delivered online. Most out-of-town, out-of-state and international students will have left the campus by April 1.

Fontenot said colleges have been given the option of using a roster system to distribute electronic forms, a mail-in drop off form for distribution to dorm residents, or the option to have census field workers knock on doors. He said colleges are now being strongly encouraged to use the electronic returns.

“We’re reaching out to encourage those who chose other than the electronic to use that method,” he said. The bureau is using university and college offices, departments of education and social media to communicate with both dormitory-lodged and off-campus students, he said.

“We’re trying to let students know that even if they’re not at their college now, when you fill out the census, use the address where you usually stay, which would be at the college,” he said. “We’re working hard to get that out to students.”

In the 2010 Census, people in non-institutional group quarters accounted for 1,158 of Marietta’s 14,805 population. Non-institutional group quarters include dormitories, group homes and emergency shelters, but not nursing homes or jails. That category, largely students at the college, accounted for nearly 8 percent of the city’s population.

Marietta College was not able to respond to inquiries Friday afternoon.

Fontenot said the deadline for completing field follow-up work has been pushed back from July 31 to Aug. 14, and electronic census response will remain open to that date as well. Despite the delays, Census public information officer Michael Cook said, the bureau intends to meet the deadline of delivering a complete census to Congress by the Dec. 31 deadline.

“We have two things at top of mind, protecting the health and wellness of our staff and the public, and our obligation in the law that the Census has to turn over a count by Dec. 31,” he said. “We are laser-focused on that.”

Washington County Commissioner David White said Friday afternoon the Census has a profound impact on the county’s future.

“It’s multi-faceted,” he said. “First and foremost, all grants and aid are predicated on it, like Job and Family Services grants and benefits, and the data collected in the Census shows income levels in townships and neighborhoods, their eligibility for low-to-moderate income level funding. It’s always based on Census data, all the different types of aid coming in. It’s big.”

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com

Marietta, non-institutionalized group quarters:

• 2010 Census: 1,158.

• Total population: 14,805.

• Percentage of population in NI group quarters: 8 percent.

Source: U.S. Census.

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