‘They’re cutting 30% of the time that we have left’: Census outreach goes into overdrive

Lethonia Dennison and Beatrice Sims are ministers at St. Matthew AME Church, and have been giving out census information with free meals for those affected by COVID-19. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Lethonia Dennison and Beatrice Sims are ministers at St. Matthew AME Church, and have been giving out census information with free meals for those affected by COVID-19. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

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Census advocates in Philadelphia and Camden are working overtime after learning that their deadline has been moved up by a whole month.  

Outreach workers, who were already canvassing around the clock in intense summer heat, received another in a long series of blows this week when the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would end all counting efforts by Sept. 30.

“They’re cutting 30% of the time that we have left, and that’s a big deal,” said Stephanie Reid, executive director of PhillyCounts.

In a statement, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham wrote the move aimed to “accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts” by December 31, 2020.

Reid and her team are wrapping up a door-to-door canvassing campaign targeting neighborhoods with the lowest census participation numbers. On Tuesday, they canvassed several blocks of the Haddington neighborhood in West Philadelphia, asking people on stoops if they’d filled out the form and offering face masks.

Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts, places a doorhanger about the census on a resident’s house. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Next week, the team will fill Philly Play Streets with census swag as another way to get people to talk about the count, and the plans for additional “census caravans” are going to be moved up, just like everything else.

From the start, the census was a source of confusion for people. Undocumented immigrants, for example, spent months worrying about the prospect of a citizenship question. Though the question ultimately didn’t make the 2020 form, some advocates posit the proposal was enough to deter that population from participating.

Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down large swaths of the East Coast just as volunteers and grassroots organizations were set to launch events at libraries, movie theaters, and laundromats.

The pandemic’s disruptions compelled the Census Bureau to extend the deadline to complete the count from the end of July to the end of October. The move was welcomed by census advocates, but people like Reid say not everyone got the news about the extension.

And now, people like Beatrice Sims, a minister at St. Matthew AME Church, have to go back to their neighbors to tell them the extension has been cut short.

Sims’ church, which is in Haddington, has been sending parishioners weekly email reminders to fill out the census and register to vote. The church attaches census leaflets to the free meals they give families affected by COVID-19, too.

At St. Matthew AME Church free food comes with census information. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

One of the reasons Sims wants an accurate count is because the neighborhood has changed a lot in the past decade. For one, it’s become more diverse, becoming home to more Latinos and white residents, said Sims. But she added that she’s noticed there are fewer two-parent households caring for children.

“Now, we’re down to some households where it’s the grandparent or the great-grandparent that is raising the children,” said Sims. “So they need as much help and as many resources they can get.”

In Pennsylvania, each person counted means the state receives $21,000 in federal funds for the next decade.

Right now, 66% of Pennsylvanians have filled out the census, while only 52% of Philadelphians have done so — a disparity seen in other large cities. 

Philly Counts staff canvass the Haddington neighborhood in West Philly, which has a low response rate. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Across the river, Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez has a team of 20 people focused on boosting Camden City’s current 46% self-response rate — the rest of the state has a 65% participation rate.

Like Reid in Philadelphia, Rodriguez and other community organizations are pushing up their outreach plans to avoid a repeat of 2010, which some leaders say led to “thousands” of people being left out of the count.

Rodriguez said she expects participation rates will jump beginning next week. That’s when numerators, official census workers with tablets, begin going to homes that haven’t filled out the form.  

“You need to talk to people,” said Rodriguez. “People will pick up that [census] envelope, that mailer that comes to your home, and just throw it away without looking at it.” +Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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