As the nation works to count its population, Maryland ranks among the top 10 states where residents have responded to the U.S. Census. But zoom in to the neighborhood level and the picture is more complicated.
While nearly seven in 10 Maryland households have answered their census questionnaire for the once-in-a-decade tally, that still leaves more than 800,000 that have not. And there are neighborhoods in Baltimore where more than half the residents are still officially uncounted.
With a recent announcement that the Trump administration would end counting a month earlier than planned, advocacy groups and some elected officials worry that historically undercounted populations — including Black people, immigrants, renters and children — will be even harder to reach in a count that was already upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Census data is used to determine billions of dollars in federal funding for programs such as Medicaid and SNAP, and to help communities plan for new schools, hospitals and roads. At stake for Maryland is $18,000 in federal funds per person over the next decade. The numbers also determine how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives.
“It’s a great concern for a state like ours, where we are so diverse,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves on Maryland’s Complete Count Committee, a state panel guiding census matters.
This week, Census Bureau workers hit the streets in Maryland to visit households that have not responded. The census takers are required to wear masks and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet while conducting interviews, the bureau says. The door-to-door operation is the final stage of the nation’s population count.
So far, Maryland’s self-response rate is nearly 68%, compared with a national rate of 63.5%.
Across the state, community groups and local governments have worked to convey the importance of the census. When the pandemic hit, they had to throw out plans to reach people at public places like libraries or approach them at block parties and festivals.
Some in-person outreach has resumed as officials lifted coronavirus restrictions, but many efforts still focus on Instagram events and phone banking.
It can be harder to reach large audiences with a Zoom call than with a visit to a church, where hundreds of people gather at once, said Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of community engagement at the University of Maryland and chair of the Maryland Latino Census Coalition.
By law, the bureau must report the population count to the president by Dec 31. Amid the pandemic, the Census Bureau extended the data collection deadline from mid-August to Oct. 31. But then the bureau announced Aug. 3 that it would shorten the deadline by a month, with a new cutoff of Sept. 30.
A Census Bureau spokeswoman said additional mailings, advertisements and a mobile questionnaire-assistance program for low-response communities are among the initiatives and will help reach people before the deadline. The bureau also plans to follow up with non-responding households by phone and email.
State planning officials say that the deadline move is frustrating but that census coordinators and community groups are finding creative ways to reach people as Sept. 30 approaches.
A floating billboard in Ocean City spread the census message to beachgoers. Outreach workers are visiting food distribution sites in low-response areas, and the state is working with the Maryland Food Bank to include census flyers in food boxes. State officials say they’re also in touch with megachurches and ecumenical organizations, large labor unions and Black and Hispanic chambers of commerce to get word out to members.
“We have never lost the focus on the hard-to-count areas,” Maryland Planning Secretary Rob McCord said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
In a call this week with local census coordinators, McCord urged them to stay focused.
“Do not be distracted by things that we can’t control,” McCord said. “The Census Bureau set operational deadlines, not the state and not the locals. ... We can’t control that.”
But the deadline change has alarmed advocacy groups and local leaders who have been working to coordinate Maryland’s census efforts.
“Personally, I find it disgraceful,” Harry Freeman, who chairs the Anne Arundel County Complete Count Committee, said of the federal government’s move. “Nonetheless, we are adapting to these new time frames.”
In Baltimore County, thousands of residents “are at risk of being underserved over the next 10 years,” said Sevetra Peoples, who is coordinating the county government’s census work.
“I’m telling people, if you want those roads without potholes, that money comes from that.”— Gloria Aparicio Blackwell with the Maryland Latino Census Coaltion
With many people suffering from unemployment and the psychological toll of the pandemic, the census is not at the top of many residents’ minds, Peoples said. The county is texting residents to encourage participation and plans to distribute door hangers in low-response areas.
At about 70%, the county’s response rate is slightly higher than the state’s. But there are areas with lower participation on the east and west sides and sections of central Baltimore County.
Desiree Collins of the Halethorpe Civic League in southwest Baltimore County said she has found that for many people, the lack of response is not intentional, but “because of life nowadays, it’s not high on their priority list to deal with everyday stuff.”
Some people can’t read the forms and need someone to explain the census to them, Collins said. One-on-one conversations with “someone a person loves and trusts” can help persuade people to participate, she said.
In Baltimore, where the self-response rate stands at 53%, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young called the deadline change “disheartening.”
He issued a “call to action” to community leaders and elected officials to encourage neighbors to complete the census, saying the city would bring iPads to those who need them to respond.
At Young’s announcement, Catalina Rodriguez Lima, head of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said many neighborhoods with significant numbers of foreign-born residents continue to have a low response rate, despite earlier attempts to ensure that immigrants are counted. The office plans to step up efforts in neighborhoods including Highlandtown, Bayview and Lakeland, she said.
Aparicio Blackwell of the Maryland Latino Census Coalition said that even before the pandemic, there were challenges because of talk of a citizenship question.
“That already created a fear, particularly in our undocumented community,” she said, adding that the coalition works to educate people that census information cannot be shared with ICE or any other agency.
This year’s is the first census being done primarily online. Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of households that responded through the internet.
But it’s not easy for everyone to complete the census online.
“Many of these same communities that are in technology and Wi-Fi deserts, so to speak, are also the same places that have underperformed with the census,” said Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city’s House delegation.
Smith and other local elected officials plan to go door-to-door in city neighborhoods to try to boost participation.
Census data shows low response rates in areas including the city’s east and west sides.
In West Baltimore, the No Boundaries Coalition recently held an outdoor event at which people could complete the census questionnaire. The coalition also distributed promotional bags and held online educational events to raise awareness.
Eean Logan, the coalition’s director of civic culture and youth programs, said general distrust of government is one reason people don’t want to participate in the census. The coalition works to help people understand each step of the census process, he said.
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Although Baltimore’s 53% self-response rate is much below the state’s, it is comparable to the rate in other large U.S. cities such as Boston (54%), Detroit (49%) and Philadelphia (52%).
Maryland’s U.S. senators, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, are among the lawmakers pushing to reverse the decision to move the deadline.
In a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, they joined other Democrats in calling the deadline change “yet another effort to sabotage a successful census.” They pointed to the administration’s earlier attempts to add a citizenship question to the census, as well as a recent memo to exclude undocumented immigrants from the numbers used to determine congressional representation.
“Rushing the completion of the census, distorting response rates, and short-circuiting data assurance activities will have disastrous consequences that will reverberate for years to come,” the senators wrote.
For now, community advocates say they are trying to convince people that finishing the census will help their neighborhood get their fair share of resources.
“I’m telling people, if you want those roads without potholes, that money comes from that,” Aparicio Blackwell said.
Baltimore Sun audience and data editor Steve Earley and Tatyana Turner of Report for America contributed to this article.