'Behind, But Focused On End Goal': AZ Officials Push To Raise Census Response Rate

Published: Wednesday, September 2, 2020 - 12:47pm
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MARK BRODIE: Arizona's response rate for the 2020 census is lower than the national average — 61.5% of Arizona households have filled out the decennial count so far, while the nationwide average is 65%. And the Census Bureau has announced it'll stop counting at the end of [September], which is a month earlier than previously announced. State officials estimate Arizona will lose about $3,000 a year for every resident not counted, and that a 1% undercount could cost the state $600 million over the next decade. To find out how the state plans to boost its response rate, I spoke with Alec Thomson, executive director of the Arizona Complete Count Committee, and asked what he makes of where Arizona is right now in terms of its response rate.

ALEC THOMSON: Yeah, you know, I think in Arizona were we're definitely behind, but we're focused on the end goal of communicating with Arizona the importance and the safety of completing the census. You know, I think in Arizona, we're, we're challenged with a really interesting dynamic in terms of getting people to respond. We have large tribal population. We have a large rural population. And we have a very diverse population. So communicating that importance, it can be challenging at times. Add in a global pandemic, and we have a whole new set of challenges that impacts our work to get people to respond to the census.

BRODIE: When you talk about some of those rural areas, a couple of counties really stand out. Apache County has a 21.2% self-response. La Paz has 23.2. Pretty rural areas and pretty low response rates. How do you try to go about bringing those numbers up?

THOMSON: Sure. So, you know, you're exactly right. There are counties in the state that are definitely behind that national average, even more so than the state as a whole. You know, if you look at a county like Apache, that's largely covered by the Navajo Nation, that brings in a whole new set of dynamics. When you look at the process for counting those individuals — so on the tribal nations and in a lot of our rural communities, which are in Apache County, they are counted by means of people physically dropping a paper form at the door. Followed by that, they are counted with the nonresponse follow up efforts that covers the whole state. But both of those operations were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We're really faced with a situation where we have a limit — a delayed and a limited time to actually get those people counted. That being said, the Census Bureau is working, you know, right now to make sure that those houses are counted. We have launched very targeted campaigns at these counties to remind people, you know, how easy it is to respond and how important it is to respond for their community.

BRODIE: Are you surprised at what looks to be the urban-rural divide in terms of response rates? And we talked about some of the rural counties, but, you know, Maricopa County, the response is 65.5 — right around the national average. Same for Pima County, right around 65%. Is that what you expected?

THOMSON: You know, I think we, we face those same challenges in every census and every decennial census. And they've just been kind of made even more highlighted with the COVID pandemic and those operational delays I talked about before. So, you know, I think we were expecting to a certain extent that those communities were going to be a little bit more challenging to get counted. That being said, we thought about this early on and, you know, we developed a statewide campaign that worked with those rural communities, those tribal communities among all of those other traditionally undercounted communities to drive response. Unfortunately, our efforts were impacted by the pandemic. But, you know, I think you often see that disparity between rural and urban centers, regardless of the state and, you know, the current situation.

BRODIE: How concerning is it to you that the Census Bureau has said that it's going to wrap up its counting and enumerating earlier than what you had expected?

THOMSON: Well, you know, we would always take more time, and we were, we were looking forward to, you know, that extra month. But, you know, we have remained focused on supporting their efforts. And the reality is they have a deadline to meet and the action was not taken to adjust those deadlines in terms of delivering those final numbers to the president for approval and then back to the states for redistricting purposes and funding purposes, et cetera. But, you know, the Arizona Complete Count Committee and the state of Arizona have really remained focus on, you know, just adapting and, you know, going with it — doing whatever we can to drive response. And so we launched a whole Initial Phase Two campaign when the deadline was initially extended. And we've since kind of, with a new change, launched an entirely new third phase of this campaign. So we're hoping to make a difference and mitigate that impact.

BRODIE: What does that third phase entail?

THOMSON: So we're, we're getting a little bit more direct. We, you know, a lot of our initial campaign focused on education, you know, building trust among Arizonans to get them to respond. And we like to think it worked. Arizona led the nation in terms of self-response in the initial weeks of that ability to respond. So online — and that's, that's a lot of that result you see in those urban centers. Some of our other cities that are leading the nation in terms of self-response. But what we've done is kind of adapt that campaign to be a lot more direct. So we're employing some new tactics through our paid media effort. We're engaging community partners to get involved and pass that message along via through health care providers, via through schools. We're partnering with Superintendent Hoffman's office, with [the] secretary of state's office. This is a collaborative statewide effort, and we're really pushing both state partners and outside partners to get people to respond right now.

BRODIE: I know that the goal is to get as many people in the state counted as possible, but at this stage of the game, given the amount of time left and given where Arizona's response rate is, have you had to recalibrate those goals at all? Like, is it enough for Arizona to be at the national average? Do you aim to be close to it, above it?

THOMSON: Well, you know, our, our goal — you know, right now, we really are trying to get to that national average, of course. And, you know, our ultimate goal is to make sure that every Arizonan is counted, right? That's always the, the prize. But, you know, we are realistic about where we are today. And, you know, we remain focused, and frankly, it's motivating to do more and push even harder to make sure that we're doing everything possible.

BRODIE: All right. That is Alec Thomson, executive director of the Arizona Complete Count Committee. Alec, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

THOMSON: Thanks, Mark.

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