Tight Census deadline catches cities by surprise SanTan Sun News

Tight Census deadline catches cities by surprise

Tight Census deadline catches cities by surprise
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BY GARY NELSON
Contributor

With millions of dollars and equitable political representation at stake, Chandler and other East Valley cities are rushing to complete their 2020 census efforts in the face of a suddenly tight deadline imposed by the Trump administration.

Tens of thousands of East Valley households already had responded to the census by mid-August, answering either online, by phone or by mail to the constitutionally mandated head count.

But many more remain to be counted.

By city, response rates ranged from 75.8 percent in Gilbert to 62.1 percent in Tempe – with widely varying rates from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Chandler also had a strong showing, with a 71.4 percent response rate. Scottsdale came in at 64.6 percent, and Mesa at 63.4 percent and Phoenix, 62.4..

The final numbers will have a big impact on civic life for the next decade. Hundreds of billions of dollars flow from the federal government to the states each year, divvied up by population.

That money undergirds vital services such as airports, public transportation, schools and hospitals. An undercounted city will get less per resident than one with a better census response rate.

More than that, census data actually helps cities make decisions with a deep impact on individual neighborhoods. Scottsdale uses it, for example, to determine where new fire stations, parks and other facilities are needed.

Political representation also is at stake.

Each state’s number of representatives in the U.S. House is allotted by population, and fast-growing Arizona could add a 10th congressional district based on this year’s count.

Congressional and legislative district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years based on census data, and Mesa does the same with its six City Council districts.

“The census does touch every single person,” said Leah Powell, who oversees Chandler’s census outreach efforts. “Of course, there is the representation at the federal level,” she said. “But boiling it down to, if you drive down the street or freeway, you’re driving on roads that. It really touches every person’s life.”

This year’s count is taking place against the unique and disruptive backdrop of a global pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau drastically curtailed operations between March and early June as COVID-19 swept the country. In the springtime the agency sought congressional permission for four-month extensions of its deadlines for submitting reapportionment data to the president and the states.

The U.S. House approved the deadline extensions as part of a new COVID relief package in May, but the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Then, in early August, the bureau announced it would end its counting efforts one month earlier than expected, on Sept. 30.

In the meantime, President Trump also issued a memorandum seeking to prevent “illegal aliens” from being counted.

Those two actions raised concerns in some quarters that minority populations might be under-counted, depriving their cities of much-needed funding.

Minority-heavy neighborhoods with higher poverty levels struggle even in the best of years to match the census response rates of more affluent areas.

Census Bureau data shows, for example, that self-response rates in Mesa’s heavily Hispanic Broadway corridor ranged from 45 percent to 51 percent in mid-August. By contrast, a census tract in affluent south Tempe showed a response rate of 87 percent.

Chandler’s outreach efforts have been creative and multifaceted.

The city supplied 3,000 kids in low-response areas with backpacks that contained flyers urging their parents to turn in their census forms. In late August an ice cream truck was deployed to get out the message.

And it’s not just older parts of town that needed prodding, Powell said.

“There’s also areas that have large apartment complexes, some of which were probably not even there when the 2010 census was done. Those are a little more challenging. We’ve been reaching out to multifamily complexes to try to see what partnerships we can have,” Powell said.

“We’re sharing the message with people at this point that you can stop the visit from an enumerator by filling out your census,” she said. “We know that with everything going on in the world today, with COVID, that people are probably not real eager to answer their doors.”

Powell said the federal decision to cut the census short by a month has added to the pressure of her job.

“It’s certainly making things more challenging,” she said. “We are feeling like we are really at the 11th hour here … Unfortunately I’m afraid that it may have taken away some opportunities that perhaps would have been there” to ensure that everyone gets counted.

City Councilman Francisco Heredia said he was happy with Mesa’s self-response rate of 62.5 percent as of mid-August.

Mesa’s rate of response actually exceeds that of the 2010 census, said Heredia, who has been leading the city’s census task force since it was formed in late 2018.

“We can always do better, but we had a goal of meeting the 2010 count and in the times we’re living in, I think we’re doing a solid job right now,” Heredia said.

Census mop-up work is now in the hands of federal enumerators who have been knocking on doors.

But Heredia said the city is pressing its own bilingual outreach and informational campaigns to encourage a tally that he expects will show Mesa has grown to a city of some 520,000 people.

“We just finished a text-messaging and phone campaign that targeted hard-to-reach communities in west Mesa that were having a sluggish return,” Heredia said.

Kelsey Perry, community engagement coordinator for the town of Gilbert, said the town’s census efforts have focused on digital outreach.

“Even before the pandemic we were such a digitally focused town anyway,” Perry said. She said nearly 97 percent of Gilbert households have broadband connections, “so it just works for us.”

Perry does not expect the shorter deadline to negatively affect Gilbert’s final count. “It just refocused us to ensure that we are maximizing our efforts now,” she said.

Heredia also lamented the shorter deadline, calling it “unfortunate.”

“I hope it’s not politically driven,” he said. “It’s something we didn’t want. This happens only once in 10 years and we need to get it right.”

Still, Heredia said, after speaking with the Census Bureau “I feel somewhat confident that they have a good game plan.”

“The census is so important for our federal funding allocations for a multitude of programs affecting schools, our city, our infrastructure,” Heredia said. “So we definitely need to make sure everybody gets counted.”

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