Disparities Appear In Census Self Response, but Pandemic Allows More Time to Close Gaps

A map of Census self-response rates among census tracts in Douglas County. Map created by the U.S. Census Bureau.

By Chris Bowling / The Reader

Nearly two months since mailers went out, Nebraskans are filing their Census surveys with the best of them, ranking fourth in the nation in percentages of citizens who’ve already self responded. However, clear geographic disparities have appeared in the state’s most populous city.

Along 45th Street in Omaha, adjoining areas could have differences of 30% with internet response rates sometimes in East Omaha locales sometimes half of their neighbors. In general East Omaha has about half the response rate of West Omaha.

The trend isn’t shocking to David Drozd, a research coordinator in the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research who’s one of many Census volunteers trying to avoid undercounts, which cost the state millions of dollars every year. What is surprising is just how stark the differences are.

“There’s been no surprise that response would be lower in the East and that we needed more outreach in North and South Omaha and the response would be higher in the West,” he said. “But there are some pretty big differentials.”

Race and income have long informed who’s counted and who’s left out of the Census. This year, many states funneled millions into making sure direct programming reached communities of color and low-income areas. Nebraska opted not to create an administrative head and instead left power in the heads of  volunteer community groups called Complete Count Committees.

Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the proposal to create an official Nebraska Census head. It did not receive enough votes to override the veto.

Drozd sits on Omaha’s committee which includes community leaders from across the city, a representative from the Mayor’s Office and administrators in Omaha Public Schools, among others. The group which started meeting in the summer of 2019, has not had a meeting since the pandemic limited social interactions.

In closing self-response gaps, Drozd said members of his committee are continuing to rely on pre-existing Census materials marketed through community-specific avenues. Putting census information in Omaha Public Power District bills, asking pastors to mention the survey during sermons and sending information to parents of the state’s largest school district are all methods they’ve employed.

“We’re relying on things that are less costly, just trying to keep that word out,” he said. “Because the bottom line is that most of the Census’ operations have been pushed back two to three months so we have more time for households to self respond, so we need to take advantage of that.”

Special effort to get that information to areas like North and South Omaha has existed for a long time. Census workers and volunteers alike identified those hard-to-count areas long before mailers went out, using that data to inform where to invest their time. Drozd said they’ll continue to employ that data going forward.

One trend Drozd and many others expected to see was lower self-response rates among hispanic communities. Before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, President Donald Trump insisted the Census have a citizenship question. Many worried that would lead to less turnout among the already undercounted hispanic population, however, trends have remained stayed about the same, Drozd said.

They still lag compared to other groups, but closing that gap should be easier moving forward.
Census workers and volunteers will also have extra time to increase self response rates as the decennial survey’s schedule has been pushed back several months in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

That also gives the Census more time to find Census takers to knock on doors and gather information from people who haven’t already responded. Already the Census had not reached its hiring goal prior to the pandemic. Now, many of those who signed up for the part-time, flexible hours work, especially older, retired people, may back out due to health concerns.

Field operations have been suspended until after June 1 and is instituting social distancing and other health measures in trainings.

For more information about the Census, you can visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s website as well as local resources like the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

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