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COVID-19 delays 2020 U.S. Census progress

COVID-19 delays 2020 U.S. Census progress

Filling out the 2020 U.S. Census form is easier than ever, yet response levels are still significantly lagging in many Western North Carolina counties. 

North Carolina’s response rate of 56.8 percent is not too far behind the national response rate of 60.5 percent, but the response rates in some of the far western counties are still way down. Cherokee County is at 43.5 percent; Clay County at 45.4 percent; Graham County at 24 percent; Jackson County at 27.4 percent; Macon County at 35.7 percent and Swain County at 27 percent. Haywood County is faring the best right now with a 51 percent response rate. 

Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional Census manager for the Atlanta region, said the unexpected COVID-19 Pandemic and the subsequent restrictions have impacted response rates for a number of reasons. Many rural WNC residents might not have even received their information packets yet because the U.S. Census field workers just returned to work May 11 after field operations were suspended March 15 due to the coronavirus. 

“Households that don’t receive mail through the conventional mail and only have a post office box, we have to hand deliver those materials to their physical address, but we had to suspend that field work March 15 just days after we started,” Stephens said. 

Now that field operations have resumed, more households in the surrounding counties should be receiving their packets soon to fill out. Households are able to fill out their forms and mail them in, call the toll-free number given or complete the form online. 

“Now you can use three options to get your responses to us — phone, mail or online,” she said. “The packet we deliver to your door has the invitation, all the info you need and the paper questionnaire.”

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Usually the field work would have been completed by now as the U.S. Census works diligently to get as many responses as possible before the October deadline. 

“When we had to suspend field work, you could look at the map of the entire state and there’s a cluster of counties in the western corner and you think, ‘my goodness, what happened here?’” she said. “COVID directly impacted those rural counties’ ability to respond.”

The U.S. Census workers were assigned other duties while field work was suspended, but they are fully trained and ready to complete their work within a few weeks. Stephens said people could still apply to work for the U.S. Census by completely an online assessment at that takes about 15 minutes to complete. 


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Completing the Census

Completing the Census form has never been easier. While the 2000 U.S. Census marked the first time people could complete the survey online, mailing in the form was still the primary way to respond and the online form wasn’t publicized. The 2020 Census marks the first time residents have three options for responding. 

The survey asks questions about how many people live in the household, ages of people in the household, incomes, occupations and other demographic information. If you are completing the survey online at, you’ll need the 12-digit Census ID number that is included in the packet information mailed to your home. 

Stephens said many people still expect a Census worker to show up at the door and help households fill out the form, but that’s not the standard procedure nowadays.

“1950 was the last time the primary way you responded was through someone coming to your home to interview people. In 1960, we started self-response. When we knock on your door now, that means you haven’t responded to our other nice requests,” she joked. “We don’t wanna knock on your door right now, but we will if we have to — we’ve done it during hurricane season.”

Stephens said one good thing to come out of COVID-19 is that parents are at home with their children and helping them with their remote learning. Filling out the Census has turned out to be a useful learning opportunity for the entire family.

“The Census is being used as part of homeschooling and parents are tasking the kids with going online to fill it out together. We like that idea, teaching them the importance of participating at a young age.”


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What’s in it for me?

Stephens said she wants households to realize how important it is to complete the Census and the many ways those Census numbers can impact their future. 

“The population numbers are very important, especially for rural communities,” she said. “It helps determine funding for rural health care centers and hospitals, early childhood education and Headstart programs. Rural schools depend on Title 1 funds and funding from the national nutrition programs — all of that is funded through the Census numbers.”

Census numbers are also closely tied to programs to help people with affordable housing and programs like WIC and SNAP that help families in poverty provide food for their children. Those numbers also help determine funding needs for public transit, programs for seniors like Meals on Wheels and assistance for veterans. 

Highway construction and repair plans for the next 10 years will be determined by the Census numbers established in 2020. Once those numbers are in, there’s no updating them for another 10 years, which is why it’s so important to have the most accurate population numbers possible.

As local governments all across the nation deal with a health pandemic, the funding needs for first responders has never been more apparent and many federally funded EMS programs are also tied to Census counts.

“Population counts are important because we have to live with those numbers for the next 10 years,” Stephens said. “Things that we really just assume are there, we’re all learning right now how tied they are to the Census. People need to ask themselves, Am I being counted? Am I helping to shape the future of my community?”

Perhaps one of the most important things North Carolina has to gain is perhaps another congressional seat in Washington, D.C. Right now, the state has 13 U.S. representatives. The 2000 U.S. Census results had N.C. increasing from 12 to 13 seats based on population, but the 2010 numbers weren’t high enough to add another seat. With North Carolina’s population on the rise, 2020 could very well create a new seat.

“Assuring we get as many congressional seats as it can is critical to communities. I think North Carolina missed it by a hair in the 2010 Census,” Stephens said.

North Carolina’s population according to the 2010 Census was 9,535,483 and the estimated N.C. population as of July 2019 was 10,488,084. Based on a report released by Election Data Services, a political consulting firm specializing in analyzing Census data, North Carolina and six other states are likely to increase their congressional delegation following the 2020 numbers.


Is my information safe?

The U.S. Census region based in Atlanta is responsible for responses in seven southern states, including North Carolina. One of the challenges in the region is getting households to trust that the information they provide to the federal government is secure and won’t be used against them somehow in the future. 

People in rural Appalachia are particularly suspicious of the government and unwilling to complete the Census form. 

“It’s a challenge to get Appalachian people to do it, but we encourage them by asking them what programs they depend on and reminding them that there’s two laws that govern Census date — Title 13 says we can only publish Census information in statistical form and no agency can get your data and it can’t be subpoenaed by the court. There is a five-year prison term or a $250,000 fine associated with violating that law,” Stephens said. “Then there’s Title 44 that says Census information is sealed for 72 years. The last Census data released was in 2012 for 1942 and the 1950 Census data will be released in 2022.”

WNC also has a growing number of Hispanic families who may not want to fill out the Census because they fear being deported, but Stephens again reiterated that government agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, can’t get a hold of the data. She added that those migrant families might also benefit one day from filling out the Census. 

“During Reagan’s amnesty program, people who wanted to be eligible for that program needed certain documentation and if they had participated in Census at some point, they were able to send in a form and get their age during the last Census as a way to get entitlements,” she said. “We count all persons without distinction — your status doesn’t matter and your children may benefit from having this information in the future.”

Stephens is encouraging residents to complete the Census survey and then challenge 10 friends to complete it as well. Local government leaders could also challenge neighboring communities through social media to get their response rates up. A little friendly competition could lead to better counts in rural WNC. 

Fill out the Census survey at

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