The country’s once-a-decade population count has been overshadowed and hindered by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Now, tens of millions of households that haven’t responded to the 2020 Census have just five more weeks to get counted.

The Census Bureau is attempting to count every person living in the United States by Sept. 30, a month earlier than the deadline the bureau set after pushing back its door-to-door operation because of the pandemic. So census workers, government officials, and community organizations are scrambling to make the most of the final weeks of the count that will help shape the country’s next 10 years.

Ricardo Camacho, executive director of Puerto Rican Unity for Progress in Camden, one of the many community groups throughout the region working to ensure residents are counted, said that having one less month during the pandemic “puts a big crunch on most of us to disseminate information.”

“That kind of crippled us,” he said. The self-response rate in Camden as of Wednesday — 46.8% — is more than 10 percentage points lower than the city’s total rate for the 2010 Census and way below New Jersey’s 66.6% rate.

Social services that depend on the decennial census for federal funding “are very much needed in the communities we live in,” Camacho said. “Not just in Camden, but in Philadelphia. Those urban areas where there is a great need.”

More than 1,500 census takers in Philadelphia alone are visiting households that haven’t filled out forms by phone, by mail, or online at 2020census.gov, and the Census Bureau is offering financial incentives to encourage people to work more hours. Another round of mailed census forms is headed to some homes in areas with low response rates.

Over the next five weeks, community groups and local officials will keep holding small outreach events where residents can complete the census on tablets. City employees, community volunteers, and college students will keep hanging census information on doorknobs and calling residents to prod them to complete the questionnaire. Volunteers will keep passing out information with free masks and meals.

New Jersey residents get help filling out the Census forms at an event in Paulsboro. Carolyn E. Robinson (left) gets set up as Gay Johnson (second from left) receives assistance entering her census data from Armando Clemente. Thomas Mayfield (second from right) talks with Dolly Brickner (far right).
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
New Jersey residents get help filling out the Census forms at an event in Paulsboro. Carolyn E. Robinson (left) gets set up as Gay Johnson (second from left) receives assistance entering her census data from Armando Clemente. Thomas Mayfield (second from right) talks with Dolly Brickner (far right).

They’ll all attempt to drive home the reasons people should participate: The census will determine how hundreds of billions in federal funding is allocated to state and local governments for the next decade. It will direct federal assistance for health care, housing, schools, roads, community development, and pandemic relief. Entrepreneurs will use the data to decide where to open businesses. Lawmakers will use it to redraw voting districts. States stand to gain or lose seats in the U.S. House.

“COVID-19 will go away eventually, hopefully, but the census stays with us for the next 10 years,” said Fernando Armstrong, director of the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office.

Time crunch for the count

“Now is the time for all hands on deck,” New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way, chair of the state’s Complete Count Commission, said in a statement. “We need all New Jersey residents to fill out the census today to ensure we receive our fair share of the federal funding we will so desperately need over the next decade, especially as our state recovers from the pandemic.”

Tonnetta Graham, board president at the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., said no one she’s talked to at outreach events has been opposed to the census, but she is hearing, “I gotta get to it.” Her message: There’s no time like the present.

Strawberry Mansion is one of the Philadelphia neighborhoods that the Census Bureau has historically undercounted. Graham said she tells residents they need to help the government create an accurate picture of the community, so they get the services they deserve.

“Some folks are worried about being displaced,” Graham said. “The goal is to figure out how many people are here, so we know what to advocate for.”

Census supporters “really got to hit the ground running” with only weeks left, because “now is not the time to cut down on funding,” said Lorina Marshall-Blake, associate minister at Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and leader of the city’s census outreach to faith communities.

“It just means that we’ve got to work extra, extra, extra hard to make sure we get that information out,” said Marshall-Blake, who is also president of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation.

Leaders of churches, mosques, and synagogues throughout the city have been reminding their congregations to respond to the census during video-streamed services.

Armando Clemente (left) and Renee Lee set up a census outreach event in Paulsboro. Community groups all over the region are reaching out to get people counted.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Armando Clemente (left) and Renee Lee set up a census outreach event in Paulsboro. Community groups all over the region are reaching out to get people counted.

Region’s census participation rates vary, but they fall below a full count

Self-participation rates in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania are a couple of percentage points higher than the national rate of 64.6%.

But in Chester City neighborhoods along the Delaware River, just 34% of households have responded to the census. The city’s overall rate is 44.8%. Councilwoman Elizabeth Williams has been going to senior centers and community gatherings and knocking on doors to encourage participation. She said she’s finding that people don’t understand how important the census is to the city and aren’t taking it seriously. Some haven’t opened any of the mail the Census Bureau has sent.

”They say they’re not counted. Well, you’re not being counted because you’re not doing the paperwork to be counted,” Williams said. “If everyone’s not being accounted for, we’re not getting the funds for them.”

The self-response rate in Burlington City is roughly 59%, more than 10 percentage points lower than its total rate in 2010. On the other hand, rates in the more affluent Burlington County municipalities of Mansfield Township and Medford Lakes Borough top 84%.

Municipalities such as Springfield Township, Delaware County; Uwchlan Township, Chester County; New Hanover Township, Montgomery County; and Warwick Township, Bucks County, have participation rates above 85%.

Andy Toy, development and communications director at the South Philadelphia nonprofit SEAMAAC, which serves immigrants and refugees, is encouraging census participation as a way to ensure political representation.

“Especially for those in smaller communities, we need to be counted if we want a voice in the future,” he said.

Challenges hindering a full count

Voffee Jabateh, executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, is focusing on African and Caribbean communities in West and Southwest Philadelphia and “had to do a lot of work” to calm residents’ fears caused by anti-immigrant rhetoric around the census last year. But the city’s welcoming of immigrants has spurred residents to participate, he said.

“Most people see that they are helping the city of Philadelphia,” Jabateh said.

But when his organization tried phone banking, many people didn’t answer or had disconnected numbers.

“So we took to the street,” including handing out census information in shopping bags, he said. “We need a door-to-door, shop-to-shop approach, so we can saturate the area.”

Tanya Collins (left) receives assistance from Armando Clemente to enter her census information.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Tanya Collins (left) receives assistance from Armando Clemente to enter her census information.

Jamie Chung, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, also has found that most people don’t answer when she and her classmates call to talk about the census, but she’s undeterred. She continues to make calls using a Philadelphia number from her California home, where she’s been since March. She continues to encourage people to fill out the questionnaire, even though she didn’t receive a response to her application to be a census taker.

“I want my peers and colleagues to understand the importance and the ripple effects of our participation in the census,” Chung said. “I feel like a lot of college students forgot that the census was still happening.”

Students have a “civic and social duty” to give back to the West Philadelphia community they had a hand in gentrifying, she said. Terri Lipman, assistant dean for community engagement at Penn Nursing, said students at hospitals are sharing census information with patients and emphasizing the importance of the count for health-care funding.

James Pfeffer (front left) receives census assistance from Renee Lee.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
James Pfeffer (front left) receives census assistance from Renee Lee.

Janice Tosto, Health Enterprise Zone project coordinator at Bebashi-Transition to Hope, an HIV/AIDS services organization in North Philadelphia, recently set up a table outside the Spring Garden El stop and said most people who talked to her and her colleagues had filled out their forms.

“We also had people who, surprisingly, had never heard of the census,” she said.

Bebashi, which works with people of color, low-income people, and LGBTQ communities — historically undercounted populations — is planning to include census information at backpack giveaways, school pantries, and all interactions with clients.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of outreach during the month of September,” Tosto said. “The census is going to be infused in everything that we do. Everything.”