Georgia is tied for second to last among the 50 states for its percentage of households counted for the 2020 Census, the decennial process that helps determine Congressional representation and $1.5 trillion in federal funding.
As of Friday, 83.1% of the Peach State’s households had been counted, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That reflects just over 61% of Georgia households that had responded on their own plus about 22% counted by Census takers going door to door. Mississippi had the same rate of 83.1%. Only Alabama had a worse result at 82.3%.
There is a lot at stake ― and little time to catch up. Last week, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee released a report warning Georgia could lose nearly $75 million in annual federal healthcare, job training and education funding, if there is just a 1% undercount. Georgians can still submit their responses.
The coronavirus pandemic has stymied Census takers. So has the prevalence of historically difficult-to-count people in Georgia, including young children, minorities and immigrants. The outbreak, for example, forced the Census Bureau to temporarily suspend its field work. There are now about 450 workers fanning out across Fulton County, where 61% of households had responded on their own as of last week.
“We are getting help from every conceivable corner,” said Marilyn Stephens, an assistant regional Census Bureau manager. “Every mayor in the state of Georgia, every congressional representative, both senators, the governor’s office ― everybody is all hands on deck.”
Georgia built a website, hired a marketing firm and created a Complete Count Committee. That committee ran TV ads in every market in the state, placed radio spots in more than 100 stations and collaborated with hundreds of local officials, said Rusty Haygood, a Georgia Department of Community Affairs official who co-chairs the committee.
Haygood pointed to Georgia’s other challenges: broadband connectivity problems in rural areas as well as historical resistance to the census in some regions. In the closing weeks, he said, the committee will focus on encouraging a personal “touchpoint” with friends and neighbors, using social media and an old-fashioned phone tree.
“I will say it boils down to this: We’ve got to figure out what buttons to push to compel people to do this,” Haygood said. “That’s what we’re working feverishly over the last few months to try to increase participation rates.”
Still, Georgia is in danger of lagging further behind other states. Three of the nation’s worst-performing U.S. Census offices are in Georgia, Haygood said, and they cover vast stretches of the state.
“We must continue the advertising and marketing outreach with nonprofit organizations across the state,” said Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a member of the committee who lives in Columbus, where participation has lagged.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups are battling the federal government in court over its plans to wind down in-person counting by Sept. 30 ― a month ahead of schedule. Critics are accusing the Trump administration of scrambling to finish sooner for political reasons, which federal officials deny. This month, a federal judge in California issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the government from winding down the count at least until a Sept. 17 hearing in the case.
The National Urban League, League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs in the case argue rushing the process could result in “a massive undercount of the country’s communities of color and the municipalities, cities, counties, and states where they live.” In recent court papers, a top Census official said the bureau was on schedule to complete its work by the end of this month with the help of more than 235,000 workers out in the field. He added the bureau has already begun letting go some of its temporary employees who have completed their work.
Atlanta’s self-response rate reached 57.5% last week. Fayette and Forsyth counties had the top two highest self-response rates among Georgia’s 159 counties at 76.7% and 76.4%, respectively. Officials in both counties credited their efforts to promote the census and cited longstanding enthusiasm among residents.
Hancock County, a largely rural community near Milledgeville, had the lowest self-response rate at 26% last week. The county is home to about 8,500 people, nearly a third of whom live in poverty. Hit hard by the pandemic, the county has closed its courthouse lobby, library and public schools, said Sistie Hudson, chairman of the Hancock Board of Commissioners. The county’s Complete Count Committee met at least a half a dozen times and made plans for kick-off events, but the pandemic "wiped all of that out,” said Hudson, who added her county also suffers from “very poor Internet access.”
Fair Count, the nonprofit organization founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, is among the groups urging the Trump administration to extend the deadline and ratchet up participation.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion," said Rebecca DeHart, the group’s chief executive. “A lot of people are focused on the election in November. But the census is the bedrock of it all. We do need to dig in, and we need to support the effort underway" to extend the deadline.
The group recently teamed up with former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s nonprofit, E Pluribus Unum, to raise awareness.
“We know more than anything that this is the time to get it right,” Abrams said. “We cannot have redistricting that’s based on flawed census data, because it will silence communities for generations.”
How to fill out the Census:
It typically takes less than 10 minutes to complete the census form online. Participants may fill the survey out online, by phone or by mail. The questions on the 2020 Census ask how many people live in the residence; if the home is rented, owned, or other; and a phone number to contact you only in the case of official Census Bureau business. If you don’t complete your form, Census employees may visit your home up to six times to attempt to help you complete the count. They’ll have identification to ensure residents know they’re with the Census Bureau, and their questions will pertain only to the tally. For more information or for answers to frequently asked questions, visit www.2020census.gov
Credit: Henri Hollis / Henri.Hollis@ajc.com