UPDATE: Montgomery County urges census participation amid debate over date

UPDATE: Montgomery County urges census participation amid debate over date

During difficult year, response rate has been high

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Diane Vy Nguyễn Vũ, director of the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships, wears bee antennas and urges county residents to "bee counted" in the 2020 census while at Our Lady of Vietnam Catholic Church in Silver Spring.

Submitted photo

This story was updated on Sept. 29, 2020, to include a comment from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Amidst debate over the final day to respond to the U.S. census, Montgomery County is urging the final 23 percent of its residents to respond as soon as they have the opportunity, and not wait for a deadline.

Late Thursday, less than a week before the 2020 census count was set to close, a federal district judge in California ruled that the count must continue until the end of October.

But the U.S. Census Bureau indicated during the hearing that it might appeal the decision. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross indicated on Monday his target date to end the census is Oct. 5.

In mid-April, the government moved the end date to Oct. 31 in response to the pandemic. Then, in August, the bureau backtracked and officially announced that Sept. 30 was still the final date for counting.

As the verdict on the deadline plays out in courts, Montgomery County has pushed forward with the message that residents should fill out the census as soon as they see the link.

Along with ambiguity over the deadline, other factors have complicated this year’s census. It is the first largely online census and President Donald Trump briefly considered adding a citizenship question.

The census is done every 10 years to determine population, which affects representation, funding and more.

Despite the difficult conditions this year, the self-response rate for Montgomery County is higher than in 2010, said Diane Vy Nguyễn Vũ, the director of the county’s Office of Community Partnerships.

Currently, 77.1 percent of the county has responded to the census. This number is 1 percentage point higher than the 2010 self-response rate, but county workers are not stopping yet. They have entered the final push of their campaign, with more in-person outreach to encourage people to fill out the census.

The county’s 170 Census Ambassadors have volunteered to hold between five and 10 in-person events each week.

The events are held at food distribution sites, international grocery stores, and areas with high foot traffic of immigrant communities. There, the ambassadors help residents fill out the census on their cellphones.

In one recent week, these in-person efforts helped more than 100 households respond to the head count, Vũ said.

In normal times, much more of the county’s advocacy is in person. But when the pandemic struck in mid-March, the team had to adjust the last leg of its census planning. 

“We saw it as an opportunity because this was the first time that we had people that were in their homes and we had a captive audience,” Vũ said. “We did everything we could to get into people’s homes.”

To virtually access this audience, the county texted residents and placed reminders in newspapers and on the radio and television.

It also partnered with local nonprofits, including Identity, Impact Silver Spring, the Association of Vietnamese Americans, the Chinese Community and Cultural Center, and Casa to have the organizations call people on their mailing lists and encourage them to fill out the census form.

The more people who fill out the census, the more representatives and federal funding the county receives.

The county loses $18,250 in potential funding for each person left uncounted, Vũ said. In 2010, the 20 percent of county residents who did not fill out the census equated to $4.6 billion in lost funds that the county could have put toward schools, hospitals, roads, school lunches and other social services, she added.

This year, the local places with the lowest response rates include the Fairland area in East County, Long Branch in downtown Silver Spring, Twinbrook, Montgomery Village, and Aspen Hill, Vũ said.

As of Sept. 21, the five census tracts in the county with the lowest self-response rates had between 56.6 and 59.3 percent of residents reporting their information.

Click to learn about lowest self-response rates in Montgomery County

Maryland’s response rate as of Friday was 70.5%, the 10th best in the nation, according to John Watson IV, a census outreach coordinator for the Maryland Department of Planning. The Census Bureau has a web page that allows people to track response rates.

The least counted population in the census is children younger than 5, Vũ said. Other traditionally undercounted groups include people living in rental homes, immigrants and communities of color.

Urging immigrant communities to respond to the census was a chief focus for the county, Vũ said.

“That was our biggest concern going into the census,” she said. “We already knew that our immigrant communities distrusted this administration and that they would already be wary to provide their information to a federal agency.”

The county allocated funding to messages that assured people that the information they provided to the census would not go to any other federal agencies. Data submitted to the census is protected under Title XIII of the U.S. Constitution.

In March, the Trump administration called for the addition of a citizenship question on the census. Though the measure was ultimately shot down, it had a “chilling effect” on some immigrant communities the county was trying to get to respond to the census, Vũ said.

Another roadblock was that the Census Bureau began the nationwide rollout of the head count on March 12, one day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has hindered traditional efforts to follow up with people who don’t fill out the census, including knocking on doors and speaking at religious gatherings.

Additionally, the switch to a largely online census left the county worried that older people would struggle to use the technology and people without access to internet might not be able to respond.

Preparations for the 2020 census began in February 2019, when County Executive Marc Elrich and then-County Council President Nancy Navarro established the Complete Count Committee.

Generally, there are 10 to 25 committee members. But Montgomery County uses more than 120 people in the effort, including faith leaders, nonprofit leaders and business representatives.

Montgomery County residents can fill out the census at 2020census.gov.

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