Enumerator

A woman responds to questions from a Census Bureau enumerator.

THE ISSUE

“Three out of four Lancaster County households have been counted in the 2020 census so far, the second best showing among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported in Monday’s edition. But for those who haven’t yet responded, time is running out. “Between now and Sept. 30, badge-wearing enumerators will make up to six attempts, including weekends, to find someone at home,” Hawkes noted. The U.S. Census Bureau is ending all counting efforts a month earlier than its original timetable. It had originally planned to count residents until Oct. 31.

“The goal of the U.S. census is simple: Count everyone.”

That was the first sentence of our March 6 editorial. That date seems far removed from our current stark reality. The editorial didn’t even mention the novel coronavirus and the complications it might bring to the task of completing the census. Yet it was just five days later, on March 11, that President Donald Trump suspended most travel between the U.S. and Europe; the National Basketball Association abruptly suspended its season; and actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for COVID-19.

The world changed.

But the census went on.

Our founders believed in the importance of proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, and they put a population-counting mechanism into the Constitution to help ensure it. The census happens every 10 years, and its results are vital. The count determines the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House and also is used to help draw congressional and state legislative districts. About $1.5 trillion in annual federal funding is apportioned to state and local governments based on census data.

Those apportionments will be flawed if the census itself is not as accurate as possible.

It’s heartening that so many Lancaster County residents, amid this health crisis, have responded to the 2020 census. The county’s response rate of 74.9%, as of last Friday, compared favorably to the statewide response rate of 66.2%, Hawkes reported.

Stephen Shope, a supervisor at the Philadelphia Regional Census Center, called Lancaster County’s response rate “phenomenal.”

“(Shope) pointed out that with two months to go, Lancaster County is already approaching its 2010 final rate. Ten years ago, a total of 77.2% Lancaster County households responded,” Hawkes noted.

We agree that’s good news. But neither 75% nor 77.2% is close to 100%. We won’t be perfect, of course, but it’s vital to get the percentage as high as possible.

Funding and proper representation for county residents — especially vulnerable and oft-overlooked communities — depend on it. This pandemic further illustrates the breadth and depth of the need for these resources in Lancaster County.

Everyone should be heard from, including residents in traditionally harder-to-reach Latino, Plain and immigrant communities.

There is no risk — only benefit — to responding. There remains this important point: “There is no citizenship question on the 2020 census,” we wrote in March. “It is not a tool of law enforcement. ... Education and the alleviation of these fears will get us closer to a full count, which benefits everyone.”

Shope explained how the door-knocking final weeks of the census will work in this time of COVID-19. “(Enumerators) will be observing social distancing and wearing protective masks and following all of the guidelines so that we’re ensuring the safety of our employees and the public,” he told LNP | LancasterOnline.

Census takers will not enter homes. They will have a valid ID badge that includes their photo, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date. The census questions ask how many people are living or staying at each home, whether the home is owned or rented, and the age, sex and race of each person in the home.

Some of us might be warier than usual of someone knocking at the door in this unprecedented summer. But the way the census takers are presenting themselves and following health guidelines will make it easier to accept them as legitimate.

That said, if you don’t want a knock at the door or might not be home, there remain other ways to respond. To complete the census by phone, call 844-330-2020. (Spanish speakers may call 844-468-2020.) To respond online, go to 2020census.gov. You can complete the census online or by phone in 13 languages.

We just wish there was more time for all of this, given how vital a complete and accurate count is. It’s a travesty that the amount of time for counting the population has been reduced by an entire month.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the new Sept. 30 deadline is being accompanied by the hiring of more employees and other measures “to accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts.” This is with the goal of meeting the bureau’s federally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 to provide final data.

But with nearly 37% of U.S. households yet to be counted, we’re not the only ones who find the earlier deadline troubling.

In an Aug. 4 statement, four former U.S. Census Bureau directors actually called for extending operations into 2021 to facilitate the most accurate count. Failing to do so would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country,” they wrote.

And that would have devastating consequences for communities — their future funding and their representation in Washington.

Extending the deadline into 2021 would bring a separate set of important questions about the timetable for apportionment and redistricting. But, at the very least, the Oct. 31 deadline for counting shouldn’t have changed.

“I fear that it will undermine confidence in the Census Bureau and call into question the thoroughness of remaining counting operations and quality of data processing,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant for foundations and philanthropic groups, told The Associated Press.

The changed deadline may threaten the credibility of our democratic processes at a time when America can ill afford additional such fissures. We hope the U.S. Census Bureau, with the support of lawmakers in Washington, finds a solution that allows sufficient time for the most accurate count possible.

In the meantime, we must do our part by responding to the census and urging family members and friends to do the same. 

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