HIGH COUNTRY — The United States Census is mandated by the Constitution to give a population tally to the President by December 31, every 10 years. To put it lightly, the 2020 count has been a unique challenge.
The 2020 Census will count the population and housing of all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other U.S. territories. The results determine the number of seats for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives. The census tally is usually given on Dec. 31, but this year the numbers will be delivered April 30, 2021.
COVID-19 has changed the 2020 Census timeline. Census takers started dropping off reminders to respond and paper questionnaires to households in March, but stopped after three days due to the pandemic. They will continue from June 13 to July 9.
Assistant Regional Census Manager Marilyn Stephens said she wrote the updated dates in pencil in her calendar, as they are based on how the pandemic unfolds.
For the first time in history, the census can be filled out online, by phone or by mail. The bureau mailed out questionnaires on March 12 to households across the nation. As of Monday, May 4, a total of 56.3 percent of the country has responded to census requests.
The self-response period will close on Oct. 31 instead of July 31.
North Carolina’s response rate is 51.8 percent, as of May 4, while Avery County’s self-response rate is 20.7 percent. Stephens noted that Avery County has a huge number of “update leave” zones, which are defined as any household that does not get mail delivered to the doorstep, but instead from a post office box. In this case, most Avery households will have questionnaires hand-delivered.
Census takers hand-deliver questionnaires to these addresses, an operation that halted due to COVID-19. Stephens said these zones are contributing to the county’s low response rate.
“That was definitely a disruption, having to pause that delivery,” Stephens said.
In neighboring counties, Ashe County’s self-response rate sits at 42 percent, while Watauga County’s response rate is totalled at 35.7 percent. Stephens added that 32.7 percent of Watauga County has responded online, and that many Watauga households are also in update leave zones.
Census data is used to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, draw school district boundaries and plan for local government services and infrastructure. The data could also affect highway project funding and fund distribution for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
Each year, the federal government distributes more than $675 billion to states and communities based on Census data.
Non-response follow-ups, where census takers interview households members in-person, will happen Aug. 11 through Oct. 31.
In-person activities including all interactions with the public, enumeration, office work and processing activities, will incorporate the most current guidance to promote the health and safety of staff and the public, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. This will include personal protective equipment and social distancing practices.