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For weeks, the 2020 U.S. Census’ update/leave process – through which census packets are hand-delivered to homes without traditional mailing addresses – was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In counties where most residents receive census packets this way, such as Rio Arriba and Taos counties, the self-response rates remained much lower than other counties, such as Los Alamos. In Rio Arriba, where nearly every resident gets their mail through a post office box, 97.5% of residents receive packets.
These packets invite residents to participate in the census and provide them with a 12-digit identification number that officials say is the most accurate way to respond.
Operations resumed in May when workers with the U.S. Census Bureau began dropping off census packets at residents’ doors in some of the most rural parts of the state.
Since the Bureau’s update/leave operation resumed, response rates in harder to reach counties have started increasing, while still lagging behind many other parts of the state. As of Thursday, Rio Arriba had a response rate of 23% and 28% of households in Taos County responded. Catron County had the lowest rate, at 18%.
Officials with the bureau have said update/leave is now completed in New Mexico’s non-tribal areas and their offices will now shift focus to door-to-door visits from census workers set to start in August.
However, census organizers from local counties and former bureau employees told the Journal that the bureau’s update/leave process has left a lot to be desired.
“We didn’t start out on a level playing field,” said Cristina Caltagirone, who heads census efforts for Rio Arriba County.
Caltagirone said many people have still not received their packets, while some residents have seen up to five packets on their doorstep. Others, not knowing they needed their packets, threw them away entirely.
Even she, whose full-time job is to focus on the census, has not received any packet from the bureau.
“Half my road got their packets, half of them didn’t,” said Caltagirone, who lives in Velarde.
Officials from the state have also taken notice of the number of packets not dropped off. State Demographer Robert Rhatigan said it’s not clear why, but that the lack of forms received has become obvious in many counties, such as Rio Arriba and Taos.
“It just continues to happen,” Rhatigan said. “Clearly, something in that operation has gone wrong and I don’t know what that is.”
For many residents in update/leave areas – where telephone and interview services can be minimal at best – not receiving a packet means they have to wait for a census taker through a process called Nonresponse Follow-Up (NRFU).
Gillian Joyce, 2020 Census outreach coordinator for Taos County, said getting a packet to someone the bureau missed is sometimes impossible.
“If we have individual people who didn’t receive packets, we don’t have a way to get that information to the bureau,” she said.
All those interviewed, including the bureau, said it is unknown how many people did not receive census packets.
Millions at stake
How, exactly, packets did not get dropped off or came in duplicates during the update/leave is unclear.
Mercy Alarid, senior partnership specialist for the bureau in New Mexico, said the bureau has worked to update and verify addresses through the Local Update of Census Addresses program (LUCA), which gives state and local governments the chance to review addresses before the census begins.
Alarid said they are not concerned about completing the census, even given the households that do not respond. However, an October 2019 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the bureau reviewed only 16% of the more than 5 million address updates sent by local governments. All those unreviewed address changes could make for additional field work for the bureau.
“Avoiding this unnecessary fieldwork could have saved the Bureau millions of dollars when following up with non-responding households,” the report states.
The report also notes that while the state did participate in the LUCA program, many local and county governments in New Mexico did not, limiting the number of addresses verified. In fact, more than half of the counties, including Rio Arriba and Taos, did not participate at all.
Alarid said counties were given the opportunity to participate if they wanted.
On June 23, the Rio Arriba County Commission passed a resolution asking Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate problems with the census, “which sets the stage for a historic if not catastrophic undercount of our residents,” the resolution states.
The catastrophe, county officials say, is the millions of dollars in federal funding lost if households are not counted. In Rio Arriba, a 1% undercount would result in $11 million less in federal funding over the next decade.
‘Operating in isolation’
For local organizers, the lack of packets distributed comes after weeks of communication issues with the bureau. These issues were laid out in a June 9 letter sent by Rio Arriba and Taos counties, and other census organizers to New Mexico’s Congressional delegation.
“The Census Bureau is operating in isolation from our outreach operations at both the State and County levels,” the letter states.
The letter goes on to highlight multiple alleged issues, including contradictory messaging from the bureau, the Census Bureau’s lack of awareness of challenges facing northern New Mexico and census workers not wearing personal protective equipment.
Caltagirone said she is not allowed to communicate with local staff. Others interviewed for this story acknowledged organizers can contact only a select few within the bureau.
“The lack of cooperation and collaboration at the local level to try to tailor the campaign to meet that situation is really striking,” said Caltagirone, adding tribes are especially hard hit by the lack of communication.
Alarid said that communication between the bureau and complete count committees has been consistent and she denied many of the assertions in the letter to the Congressional delegation.
“I don’t agree with what they’re saying, that our messaging was inconsistent,” she said.
Still, communication has improved slightly since the letter was sent, county organizers said.
The bureau has now begun shifting to the NRFU process, but some fear the same problems with finding correct addresses in update/leave areas will persist.
“I feel for those folks,” Rhatigan said of census workers. “They’re going to have a very hard time in some of our communities.”
Caltagirone said the rural nature of many addresses makes it difficult for census takers to visit residences, especially if they are not from the area.
“There’s no way they can get people to go to the fragmented and dispersed number of houses we have across the county,” she said.
Caltagirone said it’s unlikely that the bureau will have enough workers for the NRFU process, given that they’ve had trouble staffing what few events they have been able to put on. Others interviewed also said turnover in the bureau has been high, leading to a revolving door of employees that makes organizing difficult.
Alarid said they have enough workers for NRFU. However, she declined to disclose exactly how many workers and whether she’s witnessed high turnover in the bureau.
“I cannot disclose that,” she said. “We do not share that with the media. We just don’t. That’s internal information for us, but we do have enough staff.”
Alarid also said they have hired thousands of employees who will be on-boarded at an undisclosed location, since swearing in must be done in person.
Despite the organizing efforts surrounding NRFU, some feel the mistakes made with packets during update/leave have put some communities too far behind, leaving many rural residents unlikely to be counted in the census.
“I feel at this point it’s inevitable,” Caltagirone said.
The census is often referred to as the nation’s largest peacetime effort – but for some residents more can still be done.
“It is the largest peacetime operation, but it still seems like it’s just falling short,” Caltagirone said.
Residents have until October 31 to respond to the census, after the federal government extended the deadline due to the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19.