Getting undercounted Philly neighborhoods to fill out the census relies on unconventional techniques

Taking a note from caravans to celebrate graduations, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans worked with census groups and community organizations to raise awareness about the count in some of the neighborhoods that have historically been undercounted. (Zachariah Hughes/WHYY)

Taking a note from caravans to celebrate graduations, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans worked with census groups and community organizations to raise awareness about the count in some of the neighborhoods that have historically been undercounted. (Zachariah Hughes/WHYY)

A few dozen vehicles crept down the side streets of Strawberry Mansion in Northwest Philly Saturday morning, occasionally snarling traffic as a volunteer poked a bullhorn out of a passenger-side window.

“DON’T FORGET TO FILL OUT THE CENSUS,” she called out. “FILL OUT THE CENSUS TODAY.”

Elected officials, community groups, and volunteers came together for a “Census caravan,” a multi-vehicle parade intended to raise awareness about the census in three city neighborhoods that are often undercounted.

Cars bore hand-made signs and pom-poms. Volunteers reached out of windows or dashed onto the street to hand pedestrians literature and branded cloth face masks that read “I count in Philly.”

“We’ve been giving out masks as we’re out there because as we’re chatting with people we realized a lot of people don’t have access to masks,” said Khanya Brann, who works for Philly Counts, the city’s program to boost census responses.

The organization had originally planned tons of in-person events to get more Philadelphia residents to participate, but the coronavirus upended that.

“We pivoted our outreach strategy,” Brann said. They’ve made more use of social media, dropped around 200,000 door-hangers, and focused on phone banking.

The caravan idea, though, came from U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, whose congressional district covers the area.

“It came about because I had done it for high school graduations, birthday parties, things of that nature, so I said, ‘Why not do a caravan for the census?’” Evans said.

Evans represents many of the neighborhoods with the lowest census response rates. According to a list from the Congressional Black Caucus, by late July just 49.3% of the district’s residents had submitted data, compared to a rate of 65.5% across the state of Pennsylvania. That 16.2% gap is the largest for any sitting member of the Black caucus.

“Our numbers are horrible in terms of participation in census count,” Evans said. “I felt really strongly that we need to go to the street, house by house, block by block.”

He’s quick to point out that each response brings around $21,000 in federal dollars to the district for education, transportation, and housing for the decade. He attributes the low response rates to a lack of awareness about just how consequential the enumeration is for residents, but faults organizers for not making that case more effectively.

“Nobody’s paying attention to them, nobody’s brought it to them,” Evans said of his constituents. “I don’t blame them, I think we have to do a better job.”

As of mid-July, the citywide response rate was just over half, at 51%. During the 2010 census, Philadelphia’s total rate was 62.4%, less than the state’s overall rate of 70.2%.

But this year is presenting special challenges for organizers.

“People are inundated with lots of stressful messages right now, so our ability to take one additional message about something that we need to do is hard,” said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts.

She and her team started canvassing at 7 a.m. Saturday morning before switching gears and convening participants ahead of the caravan, handing out materials, and swag in a shopping center parking lot. The plan was to drive down residential blocks in Strawberry Mansion, Mantua, and Belmont, areas where census workers are also doing more on-the-ground outreach.

Reid’s work became even more complicated last week when the Trump administration announced plans to end door-knocking efforts aimed at contacting hard-to-reach residents a month early. Critics of that move say it will result in an undercount of minorities, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups.

“We try to stay focused on what we can do today,” Reid said.

“This timeline has moved a couple of times now, and this change that we’re looking at now reduces the amount of time we have to talk to people by 30%,” she added. “It’s a huge impact, and the people who are going to be the most impacted by this are people of color, people living in poverty, children.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal