Census form left for residents on a door handle. (photo by Donna Kallner)

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For most people, replying to the 2020 census is surprisingly quick and easy. Except when it’s not. And rural areas are particularly prone to conditions that can hinder getting a complete and accurate count — things like limited high-speed internet access, addressing and mail delivery challenges, and resistance to perceived government nosiness. As if that isn’t enough, factor in concerns about Covid-19, widespread social unrest, and economic worries that make the Great Recession feel like Happy Days in comparison. No wonder many of us want to be left alone while we wait for better days to return.

But like voting and jury duty, the census is an important (if not beloved) civic duty. Despite multiplying complications, the 2020 census is getting done. As of June 18, 61.5% of households had responded to the census.

As a census worker, I’ve done my best to comply with the Covid-19 no-contact order. But it’s hard to avoid making contact when dogs announce your presence, or the dust from a gravel road beats you to the driveway. And to be honest, I announce “Census Worker” loudly when approaching where it appears someone might be home: I wouldn’t appreciate knowing someone was here when I never heard them come or go. I also know that in rural areas, we don’t ignore a strange vehicle going from house to house. And it’s pretty easy to maintain social distancing when you’re pulled up facing opposite directions in the middle of a country road talking to someone who wants to make sure you aren’t casing the neighborhood.

These may not be the best of times in the world, but out here in the Yonder we haven’t forgotten to love our neighbor. Many people blessed me with a “Stay safe” as I left after making an unintended contact. Whether we stand together or on opposite sides of politics and policies, we all have a right to be counted.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that the country conduct a count of its population once every 10 years. The census helps determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and provides data for redrawing legislative districts. It’s also used to help determine funding for rural education, rural business enterprise grants, rural home rental assistance, water and waste disposal systems for rural communities, rural housing preservation grants, hunter education and safety programs, state wildlife grants, and more. We have to live with the count from this census for 10 years.

Update Leave (UL) is one of the census enumeration area types. That’s the operation I worked in March, before my state’s Covid-19 shutdown, and again in May and June. Most households in the United States (95.45%) receive a census form in the mail. Where mail delivery to an actual street address isn’t feasible, Census workers deliver the census questionnaires in person. So your rural area may be in a UL unit if your only mail delivery option is via Post Office boxes. The Census Bureau does not mail census forms to P.O. boxes because each census response must be associated with the physical location where people live, not where they receive mail. 

Other rural areas are divided into “blocks” that are analyzed for their “mailability.” According to the Census Bureau:

Typically, if the post office delivers to 50% or more of the addresses in the block, that block is considered part of self-response (people respond on their own). If there is less than 50% ‘mailability’ in a block, meaning they might not have a typical mailing address, they are considered for the Update Leave field operation.

The yellow areas of the map show the 4.5% of U.S. housing units in the UL operation.

Explore the full screen interactive map

If you live in one of those areas, here’s what was supposed to happen: 

  • A census worker would come to your address and knock on your door.
  • They would check the location and address in the Census geographic data system and update it if necessary.
  • They would record the ID barcode number on a paper census form, then leave that paper form for the resident to fill out and mail or answer via phone or internet.

When Covid-19 precautions went into effect, UL became a no-contact operation. No more knocking on doors or ringing bells. Instead, Census workers were expected to simply leave the form — preferably in a plastic bag, but those door hangers were in short supply in some areas.

In an effort to make sure everyone has a chance to be counted, some people said they received census forms more than once — both by mail and via a UL census worker. With Covid-19 shutdowns, some people went online to respond weeks before their census form was delivered. I did that, and my household later received a postcard urging me to respond to a form we never received. 

On June 24 the U.S. Census Bureau announced it will send additional reminder postcards to households that have not yet responded to the 2020 Census. The postcards are scheduled to arrive between July 22 and July 28, a few weeks before census takers are set to begin visiting most households that haven’t yet responded.

The Census Bureau also announced plans to send postcards to about 1.3 million Post Office boxes in communities that are required to use P.O. boxes for mail delivery. The postcards – planned to be sent between June 24 and July 3 – alert households that a census taker may drop off a census form or visit later to interview them.

Theoretically, residents in UL areas who didn’t receive a usable form or respond online without an ID code will still be counted in the next phase of Census operations — Non-Response Follow Up (NRFU). But how Covid-19 precautions may alter NRFU operations is still anybody’s guess. 

If the comments on the Census Bureau’s Facebook ads are any indication, some people are grateful for the persistence of efforts to get a complete count. Others are frustrated that they keep getting notices when they’ve already responded. Or they’re frustrated at unsuccessful attempts to respond online and just want a paper form. Some appreciate the effort to hand deliver census forms, even if they don’t know they’re in a special Update Leave area. Others are upset about census workers coming onto their property. Period. 

But all deserve to be counted. So if you haven’t already, please respond now. This link has information about how to do that by phone as well as online. So if you didn’t receive or can’t find your paper form, it’s not too late.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin.