Politics

Counting People Under COVID

The city of Chattanooga rebuilds its census plans under lockdown.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the census.
A man wearing a face mask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the 2020 census. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee had sweeping plans for the 2020 census. Ten years ago, during the last census, the city had a 65 percent response rate, which left a number of people who actually live in the city unaccounted for. This effect was heightened in the city’s hardest-to-count tracts, where poverty, grueling work schedules, and language barriers impeded a full accounting of demographic groups that stood to benefit most from the funding the census brings to a city.

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Any undercount will throw the needs of the communities out of sync with the allocation of trillions of federal dollars. It will hinder states, counties, and municipalities’ ability to provide residents with affordable housing, maintain and update infrastructure, provide health services, and support education initiatives. By the city’s figures, approximately $1,091 in federal spending will be lost for each person in Tennessee who is not counted in the 2020 census.

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To overcome those obstacles this time around, door knocking was to be coupled with kiosks equipped with public computers, where staff would be readily available to assist anyone with filling out the nation’s most important paperwork. Workshops, silent discos, and census trivia nights were scheduled alongside training events to educate city employees, community volunteers, and members of the city’s Complete Count Committee on how to talk to residents about the census.

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Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and the city’s entire counting program had to pivot.

“We had to reach people where they were during the pandemic, which is in their home, on their device, checking social media, trying to figure out what the heck’s going on in the world,” said Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the city. He added, “We knew that some of our essential workers were still going to be taking transit every day to and from work, so we made a big investment in transit advertising.”*

The committee is fighting a swirl of inequities that are making themselves plain simultaneously. Undocumented folks in Chattanooga, and nationwide, could be deterred from participating due to a crackdown from the Trump administration. Door knocking has been cut short by one month, and officials worry data completion and accuracy may suffer. Managing the health risks of conducting a census during a pandemic adds another layer of stress to just how much is at risk should a city be undercounted. As NPR reporter Hansi Lo Wang explained to Slate’s What Next:

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To not participate in the census is risking not getting your fair share in federal funding: $1.5 trillion a year, determined in part by census numbers, including for Medicare and Medicaid, for schools, roads, emergency response services, as well as political representation for 10 years. Congressional seats, Electoral College votes. And how voting districts are redrawn. Not to mention this census data are critical for policymakers and researchers and public health professionals. When a coronavirus vaccine is ready to be administered, public health officials are likely going to have to rely on census data in order to determine how many vaccination shots any community might need. If we don’t have an accurate count of every person living in a community, we may not have enough shots ready.

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In a chat with Slate, Yount and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke discussed creative solutions the city has developed in response to COVID-19, how they’re making contact with hard-to-count groups, and the importance of federal support. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia Craven: How has conducting the census shifted under the coronavirus pandemic?

Andy Berke: It’s been a big challenge. We went from a strategy of constant engagement in as many large groups as possible to a very segmented approach. Any time that you want to reach large numbers of people, the most efficient way to do that is in groups—we just can’t do that now. On top of that, you have to worry about the safety of workers, given the need to actually interact with lots of different Chattanoogans. So it’s been a wholesale change.

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Tyler Yount: We had an original strategy that focused so much on being able to help people in person, having all these sites around each neighborhood where people could walk in and take the census, get help. We trained all these people to be able to help with that process and then we kind of had to throw all that out the window and do something completely different. So that has been a challenge, but it’s also helped us find some creative solutions.

What are some of those creative solutions? When you had to throw out what you were doing and adapt to this new reality that we’re in, what did that look like in terms of reaching out to folks?

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Yount: We had to reach people where they were during the pandemic, which is in their home, on their device, checking social media, trying to figure out what the heck’s going on in the world. We shifted a lot to online engagement; we did some digital events; we did a lot of social media advertising targeted to different hard-to-count groups. We knew that some of our essential workers were still going to be taking transit every day to and from work, so we made a big investment in transit advertising.* And then for our Spanish speakers, particularly, we worked with a local organization to promote the census since they’re a trusted voice. We asked the,m where are our Spanish speakers getting their news from right now? And a lot of it was on Spanish radio. So we worked with our local Spanish radio station to do some advertising on there as well.

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Berke: We always want to work with trusted messengers to reach portions of the community that might be more challenging for the government [to build a connection with]. Unfortunately, those organizations are also having to adapt the way they interact with people and, therefore, it is one more weak link in the chain.

Yount: We have a pretty sizable refugee community here and we wanted to reach them via somebody in their community whom they trust, and in their native language. And there are lots of different languages that they speak. So we hired some refugees who had resettled in different communities and they started text groups over WhatsApp. So there’s a text group for Iraqi refugees, for instance, and they’ve been posting graphics and helping people.

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That’s actually really awesome that they were doing this work over WhatsApp. Tyler, you said the goal of the census outreach is to meet people where they are. When you say that, what do you mean? Why is it important to do this?

Yount: For our hard-to-count communities there, there are particular barriers for them getting access to information, and we wanted to be mindful of that. When we talked about meeting people where they are, we wanted to try to do extra for those communities because we knew that they were going to be out of the normal loop. They might have housing instability and not be getting some of the mail that the census was sending. They might not have internet access and might not be able to see some of the stuff we’re doing on social media. So what we tried to do is look very closely at each hard-to-count community and talk about their pain points and their needs, and design solutions based off those so that, on a local level, we can do extra to support them and make sure they get counted.

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Berke: There are always institutional barriers that have prevented the census from counting certain marginalized communities. That’s been even more true in this environment—because of both political considerations and public health issues. When you have a large public debate about a citizenship question, it makes the census much more controversial. That’s why we really have to do more than ever to ensure that people know we want their response, we need them to be engaged, and it’s important for our community that they answer the census questions.

Let’s loop back to internet access, which is a major issue in most places. Has the city been working to get internet access to those who need it?

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Berke: Well, it has been a challenge on the census. Chattanooga is a place that values digital equity as much as any community. We have a fiber optic system that goes to every single home and every single business in our area. It means we have the fastest, cheapest, most pervasive internet in the country. And last week we announced that every family with a child on free or reduced lunch would have high-speed broadband provided to them at no cost, which makes us the first city and the first community in the country to do that.

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Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily help us with the immediacy of internet accessibility. And that has been more challenging when many of our public areas where people could come to get on the internet have been shuttered.

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Yount: Originally we had a whole plan to try to create community hubs where people could walk in and use a public computer to complete the census, and that was the plan we had to throw out the window. So, what we’ve been trying to do is work with people who are already communicating to those populations and encourage them to complete it by phone. And, in addition, we looked at some of our lowest-response census tracts, and we’re working with some local community groups that are part of our Complete Count Committee to knock on all the doors of that census tract. So that it’s not just the census worker that you’re talking to—it’s somebody who’s from the community who just wants to tell you that the census is important for us and why, and they’re leaving behind messaging and things like that. At that point, we’re literally just going to people, trying to be in their face and give them the information that they need about the census.

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Has there been an overlap between the census response rate and coronavirus hot spots? Because there are some tracts in Chattanooga that are particularly undercounted, and I’m wondering if there is overlap with COVID-19 infection rates. And, if so, how much? 

Yount: We overlaid the maps of infection rates with those showing low-response census tracts. And we have one particular ZIP code in our city that has the most coronavirus cases—and has for several months—and that census tract is almost all Latinx residents. And they had a disproportionate impact for COVID because of systemic reasons, and now they’re not completing the census because of systemic reasons: lack of internet access, concern about sharing their personal information, concern about sharing citizenship status, concern about sharing anything with the government. And so when you look at that tract in particular, which is also the lowest response rate census tract, it is just super concerning to us.

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We’ve been trying to do some Spanish messaging from trusted speaking leaders who can talk to them about COVID—how to respond—how to prevent it, and do the same thing for the census. We have to be particularly mindful of making sure all of our census outreach is bilingual and that we have specific advertising and messaging that’s going just to our Spanish speakers.

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Berke: Hamilton County is about 5 to 6 percent Latinx. There was roughly a month where Latinx individuals were roughly 66–67 percent of our coronavirus cases. We have worked extremely hard on our public health response, which has led to that number steadily dropping over the last couple of months, but there are serious systemic issues that lead to undercounting in that community already. On top of that, you lay the coronavirus issues and the hesitancy that we’ve had to door-knock and to meet people in person—all those things are causing an undercount in that census tract.

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The responses that you get from the census, that information is anonymous, right?

Yount: That’s right.

Has that been communicated to Latinx folks who understandably have a concern about giving any information about whether they’re documented to the government?

Berke: We’re trying to communicate to them through trusted sources, we’re trying to communicate it to them in their language, and we’re trying to communicate it to them on a repeated basis. However, it is also understandable that they don’t always believe what’s being told to them in this environment.

As local leaders, we’re constantly partnering with other groups, with churches, with social service agencies, to deliver the message. But when the federal government has a huge case that goes to the Supreme Court about a citizenship question, it is very difficult to overcome that level of messaging with a local response.

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Yount: This is the No. 1 thing that we have to focus on with that community. Most of our conversations are about confidentiality. Of course, it’s protected under federal law—the Census Bureau worker cannot take those responses and share them with anyone besides the Census Bureau, and they’re anonymized from the time that they’re submitted so that the results are disconnected from the name and the identifiable information. It’s been protected for decades after that. But just like Mayor Berke says, what we say and what they think is different. A lot of immigrants and new Americans are coming from countries where there was no census, and where their government would say one thing and do another. So, we have those perceptions to overcome, but we try to do our best.

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And that’s a hard barrier to break with someone, I’m sure.

Berke: Well, I think the barrier is there on purpose. The barrier is not there by accident. And so we’re doing every day what we can to break it down, but there are other people who are building it back for every time that we try to smash through the middle of it.

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To stay in the vein of the federal government, the money that you get from the CARES Act is affected by census data, but Chattanooga is undercounted. So I would love for both of you to talk with me about the concerns there. How has it affected the amount of federal funding that the city got? Did you get enough? 

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Berke: The only cities that directly got funding from CARES Act were cities above 500,000 in population, which are very few in number. I think there’s only one in the entire state of Florida that got direct funding, just as an example. And so, we’re nowhere near 500,000, we’re a midsize city, our limits are approximately 180,000 in a 360,000-person county and a 550,000-person metro, we’re the center of that doughnut. We got zero directly from the federal government and have been working very diligently to try to obtain some kind of funding from the state and, until recently, had received nothing from the state either. Within the last couple of weeks, the state has announced that we could seek funding as reimbursement up to $15 per resident. So it’s literally based on our population and so we know that the dollars that we get are directly affected under the CARES Act by that. I’m also hoping that, by the end of next week, there will be another coronavirus relief package and it will include some kind of local aid as part of it, just like with CDBG dollars and other federal formula distributions. If it happens, it will be based in part or in large part on population, and if we are undercounted, we’re just going to get fewer dollars.

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Yount: When you think about all the breadth of response that local governments need to do to keep their residents safe and get this virus under control—that’s helping our hospitals, their aid is dependent on how many people are in their surface area in census data. It’s helping our schools be able to have the resources they need to teach kids in different ways. They need additional resources. Their additional resources are based off the number of kids who get counted. We know that kids 0 to 5 are one of the most undercounted subpopulations. When you look at our formulas for rental assistance, for homelessness assistance, for unemployment assistance, for all of this stuff, and you look at how the state is determining which city and town gets what, they’re directly linking that to census count and giving it, like the mayor said, a per capita thing. And so when we undercount, we’re literally less able to help our residents and get this virus under control.

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Berke: And then, just to complete the square, our most impacted population from the coronavirus is in our least counted census tract, where we need the most support dollars to help. And so when we undercount, we’re literally pulling away money that is needed for the places that have the most need.

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How has the response rate been? 

Yount: We are under, basically in all regards, what we were in 2010 at this point. Our current response rate is 58 percent. Our 2010 response rate was 65 percent. It’s most exacerbated and inequitable when we look at some of our hardest to count tracts. I’ll give you an example: One of the worst was that tract we were talking about earlier. In 2010, we had a 46 percent response rate, and right now we’re at 33 percent. So the gap widens as you get to hard-to-count tracts, and it’s super concerning for us, especially when we look at the impacts of less time to be able to count those people who did respond and there’ are more people who did respond in those tracts. It’s just super worrisome for us that those communities are just going to get a disproportionate impact from this.

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As it gets safer—I use that word very loosely—to door-knock and meet people face to face, do you think your team will start going back out into the community to do that?

Yount: We’re already going out next weekend. People are going to be wearing masks and trying to keep their distance when they’re talking to people, but we have to do this. Like I said, the virus and the census are so tied that we just have to do that. We’re getting less support from the federal government, so we have to basically scrap together volunteers and people who care about this locally to get the job done.

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Will the city be providing PPE to folks, or do they just have to bring their own masks?

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Yount: Both. So, most people will bring their own stuff, but we also, through this whole process, have tried to always provide masks to people whenever we ask them to do anything. So we have a large supply of masks and we’ll have them available.

Is there anything that either one of you would like to add that you feel like is important? I would love to hear it.

Berke: The only other thing that I would add is that the census is being sped up and moved up a month to the end of September. This is a little bit like having a test that you need to graduate and you’re already struggling on it, and then they say, “Oh, you don’t have as much time as you thought you had and it’s time to end, so put your pencils down.” We really are in a situation where our hardest-to-count communities are already being shortchanged. We need to be pouring more resources and more time into helping them all across our country. By shortening the time to respond, we’re doing exactly the opposite.

Yount: When you take a look at the entire 2020 census process, our federal elected officials at every turn have tried to undermine the process. And I think that’s why we’re getting such poor results. That funding has been cut for the Census Bureau operations, the citizenship question has tried to be added multiple times—there were executive orders to try to reverse some of that, and now we’re getting less time to participate. The Census Bureau are the experts here, they’re telling us what they need, and then our federal leaders are saying no. And it’s very deliberate. They see what’s happening, the results of those decisions, and local governments, like us, are left to pick up the pieces and try to do what we can to help our people.

Berke: We can do this. The head of the census came to visit us and talked to us about what an example our Complete Count Committee was and our plans. It’s really tough, but it can be done with the proper amount of support, money and time. But we just don’t have that in 2020.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2020: This piece originally misquoted Tyler Yount as saying “trains” instead of “transit.”

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