By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
With a deadline looming, Georgia is pushing to increase its final count in the 2020 U.S. Census amid hurdles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and poor internet access in some areas.
As of last week, roughly 81% of households in Georgia had completed the 2020 census either on their own initiative or after census takers visited them in a door-to-door canvassing effort that has been complicated by COVID-19 social distancing.
That completion rate ranks Georgia at the bottom tier of U.S. states, trailed only by Alabama. Several other Southern states including Louisiana, Mississippi and both Carolinas have also struggled to up their census counts. The national average completion rate stood at 89.4%.
The deadline for wrapping up the census count is currently set for Sept. 30.
“We are not doing well,” said Michele NeSmith, research and policy development director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, who has been working on census outreach for the past several months. “Overall, we still have a lot of work to do.”
The decennial count affects the state’s share of a huge pot of federal dollars provided annually for a wide range of programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing vouchers, highway construction, child-care services, special education and more.
Roughly $1.5 trillion will be available for states to tap into depending on the size of their census-determined populations, according to research from Georgia Washington University. The larger the population, the larger the share.
The census also plays a major political role in influencing how state lawmakers may redraw General Assembly and congressional district boundaries during negotiations next summer.
Some counties have seen gains in their census counts so far compared to 2010, said NeSmith. For instance, Pulaski and Pike counties – both located in central rural parts of the state – have each seen about a 7% increase in their population counts.
Overall, 43 Georgia counties have increased their self-response rates since the previous census.
But many counties are still lagging. NeSmith noted that as of last week, 58 counties showed self-reporting rates of less than 50%. Some counties like Jenkins, Terrell, Dooly and Calhoun have fallen far behind their self-reporting counts by between 15% to more than 25% below the 2010 census, she said.
Georgia has also largely lagged in the success rate for door-to-door census takers to get people to complete the census who did not do so on their own. On average, the statewide success for those follow-up counts stood at 57.4% as of Friday.
South Georgia areas saw especially low follow-up counts, with a broad stretch of the state from the Macon area down to the Florida line showing between 39% and 46% follow-up success rates, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The counting shortfall has coincided with social-distancing practices prompted by COVID-19, which quickly handcuffed outreach volunteers who had been planning for months to help people in hard-to-reach areas take the census in local libraries, churches and big events that were shuttered.
Census outreach officials and volunteers who formed statewide and local counting committees have just about exhausted their resources for rolling out awareness efforts via social media, phone calls, texts and mailers, said Holger Loewendorf, a research analyst with the Georgia Municipal Association.
“We’re kind of at an inflection point,” Loewendorf said. “We’ve done almost everything we can in terms of our messaging.”
Outreach has been particularly difficult in hard-to-reach segments of the population that lack good internet access or tend to mistrust government activities in general, Loewendorf said. The pandemic has made reaching those individuals even more difficult, he said.
To overcome challenges, Loewendorf said outreach workers have framed completing the census as a social responsibility akin to voting in the upcoming election. They also tie low counts to fewer local funds, which could mean less money for public-health agencies and schools struggling in the pandemic.
“All these current crises that we’re going through only heighten the importance of the census,” Loewendorf said. “A lot of these issues can be remedied by the census to a certain degree.”
But time is running out. After extending the count deadline to Oct. 31, the U.S. Census Bureau recently shortened that deadline to Sept. 30, cutting a month out of the remaining time that everyone has to complete the census.
Federal lawsuits filed to keep the Oct. 31 deadline await hearings in the coming days, but outreach workers like NeSmith and Loewendorf are not banking on a favorable court outcome.
Meanwhile, several groups are still pushing hard to encourage people to fill out census forms before the Sept. 30 deadline. Among these groups is Fair Count, the census-focused nonprofit founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who also founded a separate voting-rights group.
Fair Fight organized outreach bus tours in 75 counties across the state over the summer and has promoted the census via social media, virtual townhalls, phone banking and other outreach methods, said the group’s program director, Ed Reed.
Reed estimated thousands of Georgians were reached by those efforts, resulting in “upticks outside the norm” in the state’s census count. Indeed, Georgia did boost its completion rate from around 56% in late May to roughly 81% in early September due to increased awareness and door-to-door outreach.
Now, Fair Fight has launched a census-focused virtual bus tour across Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina that began earlier this month. The group is partnering on the virtual tour with the E Pluribus Unum initiative, founded by former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“We’re trying to be creative and savvy to reach people where they are,” Reed said. “The only way that we’ll be able to fully respond and rebuild and recover from COVID-19, is if we have a fair and accurate census.”
Others, like Loewendorf, also sought to convey that all is not doom-and-gloom with the census. There is still time to tally up more Georgians and hard-to-count persons across the country, he stressed.
“There’s still hope, so to speak,” Loewendorf said. “Now, it’s just can you take five minutes out of your day and complete the census.”