COVID-19 outbreak prompts new strategies to promote census participation in Ypsilanti

The COVID-19 outbreak has stymied 2020 census efforts around the United States, including in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, where local officials and community partners are now employing new strategies to reach those who haven't yet responded.


While every community has much to gain or lose based on participation in the 2020 census, the city and township have special challenges, ranging from low participation in the 2010 census to the number of renters, college students, Latinx residents, and other typically under-represented demographics.


On April 16, a group of state and local leaders, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and Michigan Rep. Ronnie Peterson, convened a 2020 Census Town Hall webinar on the topic of the census count in Ypsi.


In the webinar, Peterson noted that the latest figures showed a census response rate of only 49% in Ypsi so far. Response in the city of Ypsi trails other Washtenaw County cities; Chelsea has had the highest response rate so far, at 70.8%, and Ann Arbor's rate is 59.3%. In 2010, Ypsi's final response rate was 78%. Local officials are setting a goal of at least 82% response this year, though Dingell says she'd love to see a response rate closer to 100%.


Kerry Ebersole Singh, Michigan 2020 census director, emphasized the importance of accurate census numbers by noting that the number of ventilators allocated to Michigan from a national stockpile was based on census data.


Teresa Gillotti, director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development and chair of the Washtenaw County 2020 Complete Count Commission, noted in the webinar that the county has "definitely had to change some tactics" for promoting participation in the census.


"We had this whole plan to have all these computer labs at libraries and community colleges and to have Michigan Works! open the last week of March for Be Counted Week," she said. "Then we had to quickly turn around and cancel so many events. But ... we still have a lot we can do, like using social media to pass the word."


Gillotti said social media is a great way to spread the word, but the county has also sent out postcards and put up flyers in grocery stores promoting census participation. Gillotti also urged local residents to mention the importance of the census during online church service and to pass the word on to friends and family.


Washtenaw County partnered with other individuals and organizations for special census projects around the greater Ypsi area, including a grant-funded program run by Engage@EMU that was meant to encourage students to take the census.


Caroline Sanders, assistant director of community relations for Engage@EMU, says the initial idea was to host weekly two-hour sessions with tables set up in the Eastern Michigan University Student Center, promoting the census as well as getting out the vote. Engage@EMU staff were also considering creating plastic placards promoting the census that businesses could put in their windows.


"With the pandemic and the stay-at-home order, it flipped everything on its head," Sanders says. "We decided to pivot to another idea and make up a postcard that could be sent by bulk mail" to areas in the 48197 and 48198 ZIP codes that had been identified as having low response rates. Washtenaw County covered all $5,400 of the printing and mailing costs.


Using data on population and how much federal funding is estimated to be lost, Sanders created a message for the postcards noting her rough estimate that "$362 million in federal funding is being left on the table" if residents don't respond.


The postcards also emphasize that the census impacts schools, roads, parks, public health, and nonprofits. Sanders says she understands many people are leery of participating in the census because they don't trust the government, but her message to them is, "Don't let fear block your blessings."


She also wants people to recognize the fact that the federal dollars allocated with the help of the census are not a handout but an allocation of money that taxpayers contributed to the system.


"This is your money. It's not a gift," she says. "My interest is to make sure that communities that need this federal funding the most receive what they are entitled to."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.