About 2.2 million households in North Carolina have responded to the 2020 Census so far, but the state is still underperforming in responses, coming in 36th place nationwide.
As of April 7, North Carolina’s self-response rate to the 2020 Census was about 43 percent, about 3 percent below the national average. Comparatively, Orange County’s self-response rate was about 53 percent.
The response rate includes submissions online, by mail or by phone.
Bob Coats, the governor’s census liaison, said this year’s census is the first to use the internet to collect responses, but nearly 700,000 households in the state do not have internet access. While the North Carolina Complete Count Commission had been working with local organizations and public libraries to provide access to internet, he said COVID-19 has resulted in those organizations being closed.
“The Census Bureau did a great job of looking at those communities that are traditionally affected by not having access to high speed internet,” said Durrell Johnson, director of communications and outreach for the N.C. Counts Coalition. “So a lot of those households still received a paper form, in addition to an option to take it online.”
Johnson said his team at the N.C. Counts Coalition proposed alternatives to support communities without access to high-speed internet, such as using WiFi hotspots and tablets to help individuals fill out the census during community events in rural North Carolina. However, due to COVID-19 concerns, he said this plan was shut down.
Renee Price, vice chairperson of the Board of Orange County Commissioners, said the Census Bureau planned on using enumerators — individuals who go door to door to households who have not filled out the form. The date has been pushed back, she said, but they’re hoping to have enumerators in the field later on during the summer.
Price is the chairperson of Orange County's Complete Count Committee, a group of volunteers dedicated to increasing awareness and motivating residents to respond to the 2020 Census. Price said the committee has engaged schools, municipalities, public information officers, health departments, faith leaders and social services, among others, to conduct outreach during this time.
“The biggest challenge is, as always, is the hard-to-reach or hard-to-count communities, people who either don't trust the government for good reason or don't speak the language, you know, don't speak English and just unaware of what is going on,” Price said.
There are several hard-to-count communities in North Carolina, according to Carolina Demography. These include young children under age 5, Hispanic or Latinx individuals, Native American/Alaska Native individuals, Black or African American individuals, frequent movers and renters.
“The census is about appropriation of funding and representation, and both of those matter especially, you know, even more so for the hard-to-reach communities,” said Carrboro Town Council Member Barbara Foushee.
Foushee said through the results of the census, Carrboro and North Carolina could see increased political representation, as well as federal funding toward free lunch programs, Medicaid and housing vouchers.
“The one thing the Census Bureau always says is need follows the data, not necessarily the need,” Johnson said. “So it's just important for everybody to be counted.”
Misconceptions about what census data is used for may also be a barrier to response rates and achieving a complete count of North Carolina’s population. Coats said census data is not shared with law enforcement or the IRS, and the information is legally protected for 72 years.
He said census data is used in decisions that impact students, highways, electric systems and water and sewer systems, in addition to informing local businesses about changing aspects of North Carolina’s community.
“The census really draws and brings an awful lot of tax dollars that our communities have already paid back to work for the interest of your communities throughout time, so it's not just a point in time issue,” Coats said. “The census is something that really comes back to support the needs of your communities throughout the decade.”
Coats also emphasized that there is no citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The task of the census, he said, is purely to count everyone residing in the community as of April 1.
“If you think about it,” Coats said. “The census is very much the, probably the most democratic thing that happens in the United States.”
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