Jason Broughton, Vermont's state librarian, saw firsthand the importance of the U.S. Census this spring. He was anticipating federal CARES Act funding to equip public libraries with personal protective equipment. Based on the number of libraries in the state, Broughton guessed the Vermont Department of Libraries would receive $100,000. So he was surprised when $56,000 arrived instead.
Broughton realized the amount was based on 2010 census totals. For the chair of the 2020 Vermont Complete Count Committee, it was a reminder of the importance of the decennial census.
A study by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy reported that Vermont received $4.16 billion in federal funding in fiscal year 2017 that was based on 2010 census data. Legislatures use census information to determine districts, and the data influence decision making on current and future public services, including road maintenance, public safety and health care.
The 2020 census itself is simple: It asks approximately nine questions (depending on the number of residents in the home); none requires personal information. The census apparatus, in planning since 2013, costs $15 billion.
Vermont's census response is lagging. Roughly 57 percent of households have completed it so far, below the national average of 63 percent. We're 46th for participation out of 52 (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are included). Given Vermont's reputation for civic participation — consider record voter turnout in the recent state primary — we wondered: What's up?
Many factors affect the rate, according to Broughton and Michael Moser, coordinator of the Complete Count Committee and a research project specialist at the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies. An obvious factor is the pandemic. Typically, the Census Bureau launches its efforts in spring and is completed by the end of July. This year, in-person efforts halted when the coronavirus hit and restarted in June, Broughton said.
"The Census Bureau's been preparing for all sorts of different emergency scenarios," said Moser, who works with the bureau during non-count years. But those scenarios were hurricanes and floods. "This pandemic was not on the radar."
Broughton noted that the next several states with response rates higher than Vermont's are just a few percentage points ahead.
"We're all dealing with this, and there aren't huge gaps between us and the next state in front of us," he said.
Other factors are more particular to Vermont. One is the preponderance of second homes, which comprised 17 percent of homeownership in 2017, according to a report by marketing company Digital Third Coast. (Only Maine has more second homes, and its census response rate is lower than Vermont's.) But the census counts those second homes as housing units, and their owners should fill out the census to confirm they don't live there full time. Those people can be harder to reach.
Another issue is mail delivery. Especially in rural areas, many Vermonters receive mail at a post office box, not via home delivery. But the Census Bureau doesn't mail packets to post office boxes, so workers have to hand deliver to those houses. Pandemic restrictions have hindered these efforts, too.
Now, Broughton said, organizations that promote the census are using home visits as a reverse incentive. Enumerators, as census staff are called, will visit a home six times if the household hasn't responded. Don't want someone coming to your door? Fill out your form.
Possibly compounding these concerns are Vermonters' attitudes toward the census, which are harder to quantify. Broughton thinks civic engagement is still strong here but that COVID-19 might have put it on "the back burner." He also acknowledged what he politely called "mixed messaging" from the executive branch, referring to attempts by President Donald Trump's administration to undermine the census. First, the president demanded the census include a question about citizenship. When the Supreme Court blocked that effort, he issued an executive order requiring the bureau to remove undocumented citizens from the official count.
Broughton believes these actions conflict with the 14th Amendment, which says, "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state..." (Native Americans were not included until 1924.) Vermont is among a coalition of states that filed a complaint regarding this issue with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Trump administration and Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham.
Even before Trump's demands, the Bureau was trying to estimate Americans' trust in the census. In a 2018 survey, only seven in 10 people reported that they were likely to respond to it. Many Hispanic residents believed the census would be used to locate undocumented people, and 63 percent of respondents believed that police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation would use the census to keep track of lawbreakers. Neither is true.
"Mixed messaging has definitely hurt Vermont," Broughton stated. He also pointed to a Republican National Convention mailer that impersonated the official census and asked questions such as, "Do you approve or disapprove of the Democrats' never-ending witch hunt to try to destroy President Trump?" It also requested donations to the Republican Party. Broughton said this was "stunning" to those working on the official census.
He added that people who mistrust government are among the "hard-to-count" groups, and he thinks their numbers are growing. Other such groups include New Americans, those who speak English as a second language, migrant laborers, children and LGBTQ+ people, according to Moser. Broughton said that census workers connected with Migrant Justice to reach more than 400 migrant farmworkers and amped up their education campaign to counter the fear that noncitizens might be feeling.
Moser said some members of Congress, including Vermont's delegation, are advocating that the census deadline be extended to October 31, but there's no guarantee it will happen.
That's a good reason for doing our civic duty ASAP. Anyone can fill out the census for their household at 2020census.gov or by calling 844-330-2020, whether or not they've received a mailed or hand-delivered census packet.