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Wisconsinites Responding To 2020 Census, But Bureau Aims To Capture More Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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Maayan Silver
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Members of the Hmong American Women's Association at a community outreach event about the Census and the 2020 elections in February.

The coronavirus has altered countless plans — including those by people coordinating the U.S. census.

Taken every 10 years, the census is a tally of the nation's population. It leads to the redrawing of political districts in states and the reapportionment of representation in Congress. The census drives more than $675 billion in federal spending over the next decade on things like hospitals, roads and vital programs.

As of Tuesday, Wisconsin was tied for the third-highest responding state — Wisconsin's self-response rate is 61%, compared with 53.7% nationally.

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Credit Screenshot / U.S. Census Bureau
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U.S. Census Bureau
For the 2020 U.S. census, Wisconsin is tied for the third-highest self-response rate in the United States.

Census-takers typically rely on going door-to-door and holding public events to reach residents and get the word out about the importance of an accurate count. But amid a pandemic, those plans have been scrapped.

So the census is using other methods, like social media and public service announcements, to spread the word, says Marilyn Sanders. She's the director for the Chicago region of the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Passing the message that the census is now and you can respond online, you can respond by telephone, and you can respond by mail. We have mailed questionnaires to those non-responding households that started around early April. And we are continuing to mail out questionnaires," she explains.

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Self-response (online, phone or mail) has been extended to Oct. 31. Also, the timeline for census takers going door-to-door to follow up if people don’t respond has been changed to Aug.11-Oct. 31.

"So, of course, as with everything we're continuing to monitor, the safety of the American public and the sense of their employees remain in focus as we continue down this road to conduct an accurate 2020 census," she says.

What if public health officials say it's not safe for census-takers to go door-to-door?

"This is our current operational plan," she says. "I'm not aware of any additional planning that's going on outside of what is published in terms of ... the timeline."

Sanders says the census is trying to count everyone and every person counts, especially young children.

"We want to make certain that every community is counted in the 2020 census," she says. "It is so important that we count everyone where they live. And it's important because it's communities that are served, through school lunch programs, children's health. These are all programs that [census data informs]."

At the same time, many groups (renters, young children, immigrants and people of color) are traditionally undercounted in the census — because of things like systemic inequality, poverty, transiency, and fear or distrust of the government. 

READ: Wisconsin Projected To Lose Tens Of Millions Because Of Undercounted Residents In 2020 Census

Sanders says the message is now "be counted." 

"This is our opportunity for the next 10 years to form businesses and form the research and the data that's needed to make decisions in our nation," she says.

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