Every 10 years, the United States undertakes a count of every single person living within its borders. But that decennial census doesn’t usually happen in the midst of a global pandemic.
The first mailings from the U.S. Census Bureau asking households to fill out the census started arriving at homes across the nation on March 12. The next day, Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont.
Five weeks later, only 42 percent of Vermont households have filled out the census form. The state is lagging behind the national average by around nine points.
Social distancing shouldn't impede responses. You can fill out census forms by mail, phone or — for the first time — online at 2020census.gov.
But coronavirus precautions have put on hold many of the census' outreach activities. Census workers typically head out into communities in droves to knock on doors of homes that haven’t responded and to spots like college dormitories and nursing homes to make sure residents are counted. Some survey the homeless population.
All of that is postponed for now. And the dorms have largely emptied. The census asks where each person lived on April 1, which for most college students this year was at home, not at school. The Census Bureau advises students to fill their form out as if they were at school.
For many households, filling out the census form is probably not top of mind.
“Everyone is just overwhelmed,” said Michael Moser, who coordinates the Vermont Census State Data Center.
Moser is part of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which is tasked with finding ways to reach Vermont residents. He said many planned initiatives have been canceled or postponed.
The committee gives small grants to organizations around the state for community dinners and other events where people are urged to respond to the census. But Gov. Phil Scott's stay-at-home order altered those plans.
For the time being, Moser said, the committee is urging community and business organizations to get out the word to their members in digital and print messaging.
Beyond that, census data provides fundamental information on who lives in our state, region and country.
“It provides this foundational data for us to understand our corner of the world and our population,” said John E. Adams, director of the Vermont Center for Geographic Information.
States, research institutions, businesses and nonprofits use census data to understand populations and guide decision making. And, Adams noted, every time you hear any kind of per capita estimate, it’s almost certainly calculated using population numbers derived from the census.
Within Vermont, 58 percent of Chittenden County households have filled out their census form, while just 19 percent of Essex County households have. Nearly half of Essex County responses have been by phone or mail.
Only Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia and Alaska have lower response rates than Vermont.
The Census Bureau calculates response rates based on the number of responding households in an area divided by the total number of households. This means that states with large numbers of second homes have artificially low response rates, until census-takers visit those homes and determine that they’re not permanent residences.
According to census data, Maine and Vermont lead the nation in the percentage of households that are for “seasonal, recreational or occasional use,” at 17 and 16 percent of all addresses, respectively. Nationally, 4 percent of households are second homes.
Another factor that may depress Vermont's response rate is that the Census Bureau doesn't send mail to post office boxes that many rural residents use. Those households typically get visited by census workers.
But the Census Bureau suspended all in-person data collection in March. In a press release last week, the bureau said it plans to reopen its field offices and resume in-person data collection efforts on June 1, making sure its workers have personal protective equipment and adhere to all social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of the interruption in field data collection, though, the bureau said it was extending its response deadline from August to October 31, and that it will ask Congress for permission to push back its final 2020 population estimates by four months, to April 30, 2021. That, in turn, would delay its delivery of data to states for redistricting to the end of July 2021.
Despite the delays, Moser said he has confidence that the count will get done. And he noted that the more people voluntarily fill out the form, the less door-knocking census workers will have to do.
"Fill out that form, go online, call the number and just get the census off your plate," he said.
To respond to the census, head to 2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020. You can do so even if you haven’t gotten a mailing.