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Census is a moving target

The census count as it unfolds in 2020 is far from an one-agency show.

The U.S. Census Bureau recruits local partners in communities across the nation to increase the chances that difficult-to-reach people will be counted.

This year, those living in the U.S. have had more options to fill out the census than ever before, including doing so online for the first time. And with the unexpected rise of the coronavirus, the online option will be even more important.

“It’s just an additional service that we provide to people to be able to self-respond,” said Misty Slater, media specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau. “We’re just trying to make it as easy for the respondent as possible.”

A century ago, the process was decidedly different.

Enumerators — the foot soldiers on the front lines of the census effort — were the main conduits of the questionnaire that the U.S. government depended on to lodge a record of who lived where.

Neighborly as it may seem to have a member of your own community visit your home or place of business to take down information on the number of people in your household or whether you owned your home or could read, the local fallout from the 1920 census was an abrupt reminder of the difficulties involved.

When Medford residents saw the number from the census in July 1920, a few months after the count had taken place, many were shocked, saying the 5,756-person count was much lower than it should have been.

A Mail Tribune article from the time reported that it represented a 34.9% drop in the city’s population since the 1910 census.

Jackson County’s official count was 20,405 people, according to census records, a decline of 5,325 from 1910. After Medford, Ashland was the next-biggest town at 4,283 people.

Many residents had their theories as to why Medford’s number was low.

No enumerator had ever been seen at their houses, they said. No one had followed up at their workplace.

Local officials — from the Chamber of Commerce to the mayor’s office — wrote to Washington to demand a recount.

“The census returns were generally regarded at their true value — a joke,” declared one piece published in the Mail Tribune in 1920.

An accurate census count is needed for more than just a data set: communities depend on the count to communicate to the federal government what political representation and federal funding they need and are entitled to.

That’s why, over the years, the Census Bureau began bringing partners into its work, to help mitigate the persistent problem of people going uncounted. In addition to nonprofits, such as WeCountOregon, businesses, community centers and even faith institutions sign up to help in that work.

Because some people may avoid the census out of fear for undocumented family members, or uncertainty about its purpose, trusted community members and leaders can sometimes more effectively communicate its import than a government flier.

“Our partners serve as trusted voices and census ambassadors within their communities,” Slater said. “(They) help us reach everyone, particularly those who have been historically hard to count.”

Children younger than 5, people in rural communities, renters and households with undocumented people could all be described as historically undercounted.

But back in 1920, one enumerator pushed back on the notion that she and her colleagues had been negligent.

Helen Gale, in a letter to the editor, wrote that it was the local residents who had shown so little interest in being counted that had contributed to low numbers.

“I got a lot of interesting experience out of the two weeks work, but my little pay check would hardly replace the shoes I wore out in trotting around after people who didn’t care at that time whether they were enumerated,” she wrote. “At that, I think I can safely say that, due to untiring efforts in pursuing them, no one entirely escaped me, and I feel confident that a re-enumeration would (not) bring the figures up to any noticeable difference.”

Several places she had called on up to six or seven times, she said, without ever connecting with the person at home or at work.

“If the people had been as interested in the returns of the census at the time it was taken as they are now, I could have covered my territory in half the time it actually took me,” Gale wrote.

These days, face-to-face interactions with a census taker are only likely if you don’t fill out the form sent in the mail or online, and if the reminder letters and postcards sent throughout March and April haven’t accomplished their goal.

The Census Bureau expected to hire about 8,800 temporary workers across Oregon to conduct visits this year, Slater said.

But precautions around COVID-19 have disrupted many of the census-taking plans, including changing the timing of when those workers begin conducting their rounds. As social distancing guidance led to the closure of schools and universities and the postponement of many events, the public outreach that would have encouraged greater turnout and the home visits to check up on unresponsive households were also delayed.

In-person visits are now forecast to kick off at the end of May and continue into August.

Charles Rynerson, director of Portland State University’s Population Research Center, said in March that he thought those dates seemed optimistic.

Although census efforts will be delayed by several months, for now the date to report numbers to the president remains fixed at Dec. 31, 2020.

“Congress can change that,” Rynerson said in a March news release from PSU. “But, of course, that’s a last resort that could have implications for the work that states do to draw congressional and other political districts.”

Oregon is one of those states: it is expected to gain a seat in Congress after this count is finalized.

Whenever the census workers come, they should be recognizable. In addition to a Census Bureau ID with a photo and a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark to establish their legitimacy, they’ll also carry resources to connect with people who speak a variety of languages, and those who may need large-print or braille forms.

The COVID-19 delay, however, also stifled efforts to reach out hard-to-count populations. It pushed back three days planned in April intended to reach out to homeless and unsheltered people, which are one of those groups that are tough to count.

“It’s hard enough to count the homeless,” Rynerson said. “Census takers have to work a lot with local people who are knowledgeable about where homeless people might be, but they might not be in the same place due to the virus.”

To counter those effects, WeCount Oregon decided to focus more on digital outreach and advertising to direct people to the census during the COVID-19 closures, The online option remained the safest during the time of pandemic and social distancing.

“The more people who do that the better, both for safety and for saving the federal government money,” Rynerson said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

An enumerator conducts an interview for the 1920 Census.Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.