The federal government’s once-a-decade effort to count every person living in the United States is nearly complete.
It’s been a tumultuous year; the U.S. Census Bureau launched its first large-scale web campaign, contended with a global pandemic and was told in August it would have one less month to complete its count.
Efforts in Wyoming are still far from complete. With less than a month before the deadline, 17% of the state’s households have yet to be counted in the 2020 census. As of Thursday, less than 60% of Wyoming households had self-responded to the survey and about 23% had been counted by census takers during non-response follow-up.
The state is ranked 40th for self-response participation, but 25th for total enumeration, meaning that while Wyoming’s residents have participated in the survey at a lower rate than most of the nation, its enumerators are picking up the slack.
The Wind River Reservation is also exceeding enumeration goals, said Michael Yellowplume, who leads outreach efforts for the Northern Arapaho Tribe. He said the reservation is leading the region in its completion rate, with 51.2% of the area accounted for as of Thursday.
Yellowplume conceded they still have a long way to go to reach 100%, but he believes they’re on pace.
The reservation has its own challenges in achieving an accurate census count. Native people living on reservations are already among the most undercounted in the U.S. In 2010, that group was undercounted by almost 5% nationwide, which equates to significant federal funding going unallocated to communities who have the population to warrant it.
Efforts on the reservation have been complicated by COVID-19. About a third of homes there don’t have wireless internet, making online self-response more challenging. Yellowplume said there are Wi-Fi hotspots at Blue Sky Hall in Ethete, Great Plains Hall in Arapaho and at the Wind River Internet building in Riverton. Residents can park in the lot, and the network should appear on their device.
The other challenge, Yellowplume said, is getting people to trust that the personal information provided for the survey won’t be shared with police departments, affect government assistance or be used against them in any way.
This concern is shared by members of nearly every demographic, according to a survey the bureau conducted in 2018. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they were at least somewhat concerned about their responses to the 2020 census being used against them. Concern increased among racial minority groups.
Yellowplume said his team’s efforts to combat this have focused around education, but they’ve been scrambling after learning they would have one less month to do the work.
The Census Bureau will finish collecting data for the 2020 count Sept. 30, two months after the pre-COVID-19 timeline would have concluded collection but a month sooner than the Bureau had hoped to have done in the midst of the pandemic.
Originally, the bureau had planned to finish all data collection — including self-response and door-to-door enumeration, by July 31. When it became clear COVID-19 would make in-person enumeration more complicated, the bureau, like nearly all government agencies, had to pivot.
The agency had asked U.S. Congress for a four-month delay in processing the constitutionally mandated count, and it had seemed like that request would be approved. But in early August, the bureau pivoted again under direction from the Trump administration, announcing a sudden change of plan to complete data collection a month earlier — by Sept. 30.
Yellowplume said he’s still confident the tribes will be counted, but he’s encouraging people to act with urgency.
The Census Bureau itself apparently lacks that confidence. National Public Radio reported this week on internal Census Bureau documents released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee that show bureau officers worried about inaccurate data and insufficient time to correct mistakes with the new deadline.
Democratic Party leaders are now asking for a litany of bureau documents, including risk assessments and communications between officers leading up to the decision to cut data collection short by a month.
NPR also reported this week that some large census offices across the U.S. were concluding enumeration efforts earlier than Sept. 30, and that revelation had caused concern among local offices worried about accurate counts.
Bureau spokeswoman Jennifer Hillmann told the Star-Tribune on Friday that no census office is cutting enumeration short, but some offices began earlier than others, which is why the schedule is somewhat staggered.
Still, Wyoming’s census office, based in Casper, will likely be counting up until Sept. 30, as it did not resume door-to-door enumeration efforts until early August. Hillman said Wyoming’s efforts could finish before the deadline, but it’s most likely Wyoming “door knockers,” as the bureau refers to them, will be working through the end of the month.
Many have already been out in the state. Yellowplume said enumerators will begin knocking on doors on the reservation next week and will visit each house up to six times to attempt to count its inhabitants.
Residents who have not counted themselves still have until Sept. 30 to do so. An enumerator is meant to visit households that have not responded, but the bureau is pushing self-response again given the new deadline.
There is no citizenship question on the survey, and the identifiable data won’t be given to any other agency. Accurate data is a crucial economic indicator; it can help communities plan for development and is used to divvy up billions in federal money.
If a community is undercounted, it may not receive the money necessary to serve its entire population. Or it could be using inaccurate data to plan for a new grocery store, for example.
A Star-Tribune analysis published in March showed several communities in Wyoming stand to lose large swaths of population after the 2020 count, making counting those that stay even more critical to the allotment of state and federal money.
The bureau has mailed one more reminder to encourage residents to respond on their own to the survey, rather than wait to be enumerated by a census taker in person.
Those mail reminders may have already arrived for some households. If not, the bureau said all reminders should arrive at households by Sept. 15.