The U.S. Census Bureau’s recent decision to move up the 2020 census deadline from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30 was met with frustration and confusion by Pima County officials and data collectors. Now, local census volunteers and employees are working overtime to reach historically undercounted populations.
On Sept. 1, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a request by the Pima County Census 2020 Complete Count Committee to file an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau. The Complete Count Committee was created to bring awareness to Pima County residents about the importance of the census
The lawsuit, pursued by several civil rights organizations and cities, claims that the decision to reduce the time for door-to-door census data collection by a month was “unwarranted and unjustified.”
“I think this lawsuit could expose the real reasons why this happened and the fact that it’s going to cause a lot of communities to lose out on funding that is rightfully theirs,” said Pima County Supervisor Betty Villegas, who chairs Pima County’s Complete Count Committee.
Villegas said there has been no clear explanation from the U.S. Census Bureau or the Trump administration for the deadline change. She said rumors speculate that moving up the data collection deadline may have been politically motivated.
Villegas said the coronavirus pandemic has already made reaching hard-to-count populations a daunting task, and the deadline change added to the stress on data collectors. According to Villegas, the Pima County Complete Count Committee will be lucky to reach a 75 percent response rate by the new Sept. 30 deadline.
“Here we are on this deadline that seems impossible to reach but we have to keep trying,” Villegas said. “Unfortunately, people that are now essential workers are risking their safety to go knock on doors.”
According to Alec Thomson, executive director of the broader Arizona Complete Count Committee, the date change reflects the President’s need to receive census data by the end of the year, but Villegas said the deadline is not absolute and can, in fact, be changed.
Thomson said the U.S. Census Bureau has been working with census-takers to ensure that they have personal protective equipment and specific training to allow them to safely continue in-person counting at people’s homes.
The pandemic forced the U.S. Census Bureau to cancel and delay the traditionally in-person operations, such as delivering census forms to homes without a physical address and nonresponse follow-up, which is currently happening.
According to Thomson, the Arizona Complete Count Committee’s priority is to collect data from hard-to-reach populations, including children under 5 years of age, tribal populations, rural areas and non-native English-speaking communities.
“Arizona faces some major challenges in terms of the number of households that we need to follow up with in person,” Thomson said. “We have a much larger rural population, a much larger tribal population, compared with a lot of states. And then you add in the traditional challenges that we face in reaching those traditionally undercounted communities and then you end up with a lower response rate.”
The stakes of census accuracy are high. According to Thomson, even a 1 percent undercount of the population could cost Arizona around $60 million annually, a total of $600 million over the next decade.
“Another conservative estimate is that about $3,000 per person annually is at stake for every person that’s missed, so that’s funding that directly supports programs that range from affordable housing to medical services, transportation infrastructure, it really touches every element of our lives,” he said.
As of Sept. 2, the United States Census 2020 website showed Arizona’s self-response rate was 61.7 percent, while Pima County’s self-response rate was 65.3 percent. The state is ranked 34th in self-response rates across the country.
“We’re doing really well in Pima County and Oro Valley and Sahuarita and Marana,” Villegas said. “That’s what’s really bringing our numbers up.”
Despite the challenges posed by the deadline change and the pandemic, both Thomson and Villegas remain determined to reach as many Arizonans as possible before the new deadline.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re letting every Arizonan know that they count and that responding is important,” Thomson said.
Madison McCormick is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.