Making sure everyone is counted in 2020 Census is no easy task

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore columns by local residents about their lives.

The 2020 Census is still going on, although census-takers — known as enumerators — stopped knocking on doors back in mid-October.

That fact is first-hand knowledge for me. I was among as many as 288,204 temporary workers hired as enumerators by the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct our nation’s constitutionally mandated decennial count.

If more people had filled out their 2020 Census by April 1 — Census Day — the work would not have existed. 

Despite a $500 million-plus multi-platform, multi-media public education and outreach campaign designed to increase response, more than a third of about 152 million households nationwide did not complete their 2020 Census questionnaires. Only 67% responded, the Census Bureau reported.

Michigan's self-response rate was 71.3% for 2020, up from 2010's 67.7%. For self-response for the 2020 Census, Ottawa County was at 79.5%, Kent County at 78.6%, Muskegon County at 74.3%, and Allegan County at 72.8%. 

Door-to-door visits

Because of those non-responses, that meant going door to door. Carrying an ID badge, messenger bag with Census Bureau materials and documents, and an iPhone, I visited specific addresses assigned to me in West Michigan’s Ottawa, Allegan, Kent, and Muskegon counties. 

Rick Martinez (James Markus Photography)
My job was to find people in households who did not fill out their 2020 Census questionnaires by mail, online, or by telephone. 

The task ran from August through mid-October. It definitely was not easy, and I was not always well-received, though I was knocking on doors wearing a mask and staying socially distant because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Like the other 15 members of my Jenison-based crew, I did my best to get people to complete their 2020 Census during what the Census Bureau called its Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU) phase.

While doing so, I was commended, ignored, appreciated, dissed, complimented, and disapproved of. While most people were welcoming, some shut their doors on me. I spoke with folks on porches, in front yards, on sidewalks, at offices, by telephone, and via text in fluent English and, on occasion, in my meager scripted Spanish. 

When no one was available at homes and apartments, I found proxies with property managers, landlords, college and university officials, neighbors, and other knowledgeable individuals to glean the information. I did so in person, by phone, and by email, tracking down people in the know both locally and as distant as Chicago and Houston.

What I found was most people were very helpful, concerned, and wanted to provide whatever assistance they could, particularly college students and senior citizens.

Condensed and disrupted

Data collection, public outreach, and interactions with people require effort. While I knew this from my professional career, I also had the inside knowledge of having worked as a “paid volunteer” on the 2010 Census.

However, the 2020 Census was an entirely different matter. For instance, even with it being done on an iPhone instead of using paper forms like for the 2010 Census, it was difficult at times and required determination and digging.

There were the ongoing COVID-19 concerns and impact, as well as civil unrest, political strife and divisiveness, weather, and lawsuits regarding the count itself. Those combined to create unplanned stops and starts with the Census Bureau’s schedule, shifting field operations by three months to end by Oct. 31 instead of July 31. 

Regardless, the job by enumerators, including myself, was to count everyone. The count included college students, snowbirds, migrant workers, couch surfers, the homeless, and international visitors.

More often than not, getting answers to the 2020 Census’ nine questions took less than 10 minutes. Those details were revealed to me under oath, with my sworn promise to protect their answers and privacy for 72 years.

Wrapping up 

The census is incredibly important. 

The Constitution mandates the federal government do the nationwide count once a decade, something the U.S. has been doing since 1790. 

Federal agencies use census data to distribute more than $675 billion in federal funds. Congress utilizes the census to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 2020 Census finished collecting responses for the NRFU phase at 5:59 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15. Mailed-in paper responses postmarked by Oct. 15 were processed through Oct. 22, according to the Census Bureau.

There were 46 million addresses in the United States, including the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) that required one or more visits by enumerators, the Census Bureau reported. 

That earnest work paid off with a national completion rate of 99.98% of all addresses, according to the Census Bureau. 

There is still more 2020 Census work being done, with the Census Bureau’s delivery of the final report expected to be sent to the president by Dec. 31. 

Rick Martinez is a public relations, marketing communications, and digital media practitioner based in Jenison, Michigan.

Read more about the census efforts:

What’s at stake for Ottawa County with the census

Why counting young people is critical to success of 2020 census



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