U.S. Census 2020 Photo

Little has gone as expected since the 2020 census opened online March 12, just as schools, shops and businesses were starting to close due to COVID-19.

The U.S. Census Bureau had planned for in-person follow-ups to begin May 13. Now, they’ll wait to head out into communities until Aug. 11. The self-response period was supposed to run through July 31, but the end date has been pushed until the end of October.

The pandemic has left Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park with mixed results as far as response rates. All three jurisdictions are currently running behind their 2010 response rates, but the county and both cities are edging Virginia as a whole.

In Prince William County, the current self-response rate according to Census Bureau statistics is 70.2%. In 2010, the final number was 77%. In Manassas, 66.7% of households have responded, compared to 74% total in 2010. And in Manassas Park, the current rate is 66%. Last time around, that number was 78%. Statewide, the current response rate is 65.9%.

But officials are hopeful that with the additional time allowed by a federal delay, their respective localities can get as many people counted as possible before census takers begin going door to door Aug. 11.

In Manassas, two census tracts in the southern part of the city are running behind the state average, and Community Development Director Liz Via-Gossman said the city is now beginning to focus on those neighborhoods in particular in what’s basically a marketing push. Efforts earlier in the year to encourage participation took a backseat once the pandemic forced a shutdown of many businesses in the state. Part of the city’s original plan was to use schools to get the word out to parents. When they closed to slow the outbreak’s spread, that changed.

“We’re just now analyzing what census tracts and neighborhoods are lagging so in the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing a push to those specific neighborhoods,” Via-Gossman said. “We’re in decent shape but we need to keep it up and keep pushing. Because of COVID we’ve got some extra time so we’ve got to continue getting the message out there.”

The census takers themselves are hired by the Census Bureau, leaving localities themselves to promote completion of the census. With the various state and federal formulas that use census population for funding, the nonprofit Community Foundation estimates that Northern Virginia as a region stands to lose $1,215 in federal money for each resident not counted.

“You really want to exceed your 2010 numbers, so I think the takeaway is jurisdictions now need to be looking at their response rates and gearing up for that final push when census takers hit the street,” Via-Gossman said.

In Prince William County, officials have tried to use some of the new realities to their advantage in spreading the word. According to county demographer Brian Englemann, the county has been passing out postcards with census information at COVID-19 testing and food distribution sites. It’s also been running specific radio and streaming ads, targeted at certain demographics and some in Spanish based on zip code. Those, according to Englemann, will continue until Aug. 31.

“It has been difficult during these challenging times with the pandemic,” Englemann said. “Prince William County is experiencing the same challenges with outreach during COVID-19 as other jurisdictions are — the same limitations of promotion without being there in person to speak with people.”

Keith Nguyen, the assistant to the city manager in Manassas Park, said it wasn’t fair to compare the current response rates to those in 2010, both because of the pandemic and the area’s rapidly-changing demographics.

In Manassas, for example, the Census Bureau estimates that 63% of the population lives in “hard-to-count” areas due to low income levels, college education rates and percentages of native English speakers.

In theory, the census going fully online for the first time was supposed to make completing it even easier, but Nguyen said that could pose some challenges as well, for people who are unfamiliar with the online system, skeptical of sharing personal information on the internet, or who have limited internet access in the first place.

Manassas Park also had in-person “Census Days” planned, where city employees would distribute information on the census to boost participation. Because of the pandemic, those were cancelled.

The city still sends out messages about the census on social media once per week, Nguyen said, and has started enlisting local pastors to share the importance of getting counted through whatever means they’re currently communicating with congregants.

“We really had to double down on the communications piece and tweak our plan a little bit,” Nguyen said. “I wasn’t here 10 years ago so it’s hard for me to say what the demographics were back then, but we still have several months left until the self-response is closed. There’s still some progress to be had but this area changes yearly so it’s hard to say.”

If the state’s reopening continues apace, Nguyen said, some of that in-person outreach could be rescheduled.

“We’re hoping for a strong finish. It’s easy to forget the census is going on when you have protests and COVID, but we’re making a concerted effort to push messaging and keep it fresh on everyone’s mind,” Nguyen said.


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