U.S. Census Bureau cuts short door-to-door effort, could cost Michigan

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The U.S. Census Bureau was supposed to wrap up its door knocking efforts at the end of October, but on Wednesday quietly moved that date up to the end of September — which could cut critical funding allocated based on census data for the state of Michigan.

NPR reported Thursday that the in-person interviews for the census will end on Sept. 30, rather than Oct. 31 when efforts were expected to conclude. 

Kerry Ebersole Singh, director of the Michigan 2020 Statewide Census campaign, said she learned of the change in plans from media reports and is concerned that the shortened timeline will affect Michigan’s overall count. 

As it stands, without any in-person efforts yet started in Michigan, 68.7% of Michiganders have filled out their census form.

This is only a small increase of 1% from mid-June.

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During a U.S. House hearing Wednesday, Democrats raised concerns that the push to expedite the census count could be part of a scheme from the Trump administration to get President Donald Trump the numbers by the end of 2020.

“President Trump and [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are demanding the American people finance their political manipulation of our democracy,” U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement after the hearing. “Rushing the census to completion means that census workers will not have enough time to follow up on the non-responses, an essential operation designed to find and count the hardest to reach communities.” 

When asked why and when the decision was made to change the date for door-to-door operations, the Census Bureau replied in a written statement to NPR: “We are currently evaluating our operations to enable the Census Bureau to provide this data in the most expeditious manner and when those plans have been finalized we will make an announcement.”

The “Michigan Be Counted” campaign, a collaboration between the state of Michigan, U.S. Census Bureau and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, set out with a big goal of 82% participation for the 2020 census. 

Because the participation rate is calculated differently than the response rates, that would mean the total response goal for Michigan is about 71.7%, Ebersole Singh said. 

“Responses have slowed, and this is where the work of the census gets really hard, and why that door-to-door operation by the U.S. Census Bureau is so critical,” she said.

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Non-response follow up interviews pre-pandemic were expected to begin in May and continue to the end of June. Due to health and safety concerns, the in-person operations were rescheduled to start mid-August. 

For much of the southern portion of Michigan, in-person interviews will begin Aug. 5, and for the rest of the state will begin Aug. 11.

“The U.S. Census Bureau cutting door-to-door operations from three months to six weeks is a big concern,” Ebersole Singh said. “I would say that also, we have dealt with a lot of uncertainty with a pandemic. But now there are additional questions as the U.S. Census Bureau moves the timelines around, so I fear that will create confusion.”

While this change in the timeline has thrown the campaign for a loop, Ebersole Singh said it doesn’t change the mission. 

“Our strategy after we saw where the state was at in May, we decided that we wanted to deploy about 90% of our resources by mid-August when the non-response follow up with this Census Bureau was scheduled to start,” she said.

Now, with less time to collect census responses on the ground, the campaign is concerned how it will affect its efforts, especially in contacting “hard to count” communities in Michigan. 

As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, “hard to count” communities are hard to locate, hard to interview, hard to contact and hard to persuade. 

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In both rural and urban areas, hard to count populations are usually composed of young people, racial minorities, people with low incomes, people experiencing homelessness and undocumented immigrants. 

“We still want to encourage everyone to complete the census before someone comes to your door,” Ebersole Singh said. “So, this change from the US Census Bureau doesn’t change that mission, if anything, adds urgency, and I think it also adds a moment for us to share additional innovative ways to reach hard to count communities.”

An unprecedented $16 million was allocated by the state Legislature for  census outreach and participation, making it the largest census campaign in state history.

The census determines how much federal funding Michigan receives for public safety, health care, education, roads and infrastructure through 2030. 

For every person that goes uncounted, the state could lose $1,800 of federal funds each year, according to the Council of Michigan Foundations.

It’s unclear if Michiganders will still have until Oct. 31 to fill out the census online, by phone or by mail, but Ebersole Singh urges everyone not to wait.

“The biggest thing I want everyone in the state to understand is that being counted in the census is one way we get the resources back into our state we deserve and allocated representation for our population. It’s really important. Don’t wait for the deadline. Fill it out today,” she said.