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Count on it: COVID-19 forces changes to census

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story mistakenly attributed comments made by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The story has been corrected.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Don’t expect a census taker from the U.S. Census Bureau to knock at your door – at least not yet. Like everyone else, the bureau is making adjustments because of COVID-19.

“We’re changing some of our procedures to go out into the field,” Jerome Garza, an assistant regional census manager based in Dallas, told the Journal on Wednesday, Census Day, when households across the country are asked to count every person living in their home.

“We were out in the field in March but suspended that operation. Since March 12, in cooperation with the U.S. Postal Service, we’ve been mailing questionnaires and invitations to answer the questionnaire to all city-style addresses, which make up 95% of all households in the United States,” he said.

Those households with post office boxes and rural route addresses will receive questionnaires.

“Previously, we had people knock at the door and talk to the resident,” Garza said. “We have changed that so when we go back in the field on April 15 we’re simply going to leave the questionnaire at the household without interacting with people in the home.”

If by May 15 questionnaires go unanswered, a census taker may very well come knocking at the door. The Census Bureau is in the process of determining the safest procedure for doing that, Garza said.

Do it online

Of course, there’s no reason for that to be necessary, “because for the first time ever, there are three ways to answer the census,” Garza said.

People can go online at www.2020census.gov; they can respond by phone at 844-330-2020 for English or 844-468-2020 for Spanish (there are a dozen other languages also available); or they can mail back the paper questionnaire.

“Historically, the census has only been done on paper, so from the standpoint of being accessible, this is the easiest census ever,” Garza said. “And there are only 10 questions, so it should take less than 10 minutes in most cases.”

So far, with a self-response rate of 28.3%, New Mexico lags behind the national self-response rate of 38.6%, Garza said.

That may be because people have yet to get the message that census data is strictly confidential and not shared with any law enforcement agency, he said.

Furthermore, he said, the 2020 census does not ask for Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers or financial information, nor does it ask questions about immigration or citizenship status, or political party affiliation.

Big implications

The primary purpose of the census is to determine how many people live in a household and their ages as of April 1.

A census is mandated under the U.S. Constitution to take place every 10 years. Based on that count, “billions and billions of federal dollars are allocated to each community to help build schools, hospitals, fire stations, roads and other infrastructure,” Garza said, as well as funding for vital federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

In addition, the census count determines how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While there are fines established under law for not answering the census or for giving false information, the law hasn’t been enforced for 70 years, said Brandale Mills, a New Mexico spokeswoman for the regional census center field office.

Count critical for NM

In a statement released Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján said he was “encouraging every household in New Mexico to participate in the census,” adding that an accurate count is essential to determine “the resources our state will receive for decades to come.”

He noted that the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said that New Mexico is at risk of being undercounted by nearly 37,000 residents. “Each individual not counted could mean a loss of $3,700 per person, per year,” Luján said.

“Just a 1% undercount in New Mexico could result in losing approximately $1 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, said in a statement.

“We can’t allow that to happen. We know that every New Mexican counts, so let’s make sure that every New Mexican responds to the census,” he said.

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