During the last few months of 2019, several local and statewide organizations in Florida were finalizing big plans for Census 2020 outreach.
A lot of it would involve door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods across South Florida and beyond, as well as in-person events focused on educating hard-to-count communities.
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“The original plan was very outreach focused,” said Susan Racher, spokesperson for Florida Counts Census, a coalition between several nonprofit organizations throughout the state. “Literally door to door, festivals, events, folks helping their communities fill out the census.”
But right as households began to receive their Census 2020 letters in mid and late March, counties across the state — including those in South Florida — began to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the then-novel coronavirus.
All canvassing efforts and events were postponed.
“What we had to do is, very quickly, pivot and work with the 45 organizations that we funded statewide to move into digital and other ways to get the messaging out,” said Racher.
The focus then turned completely remote and digital. Groups began to increase their social media presence, began putting out ads for radio and television, have hosted telephone town halls and have launched massive text message campaigns.
Florida Counts has already sent out 200,000 multilingual text messages to Floridians, with an average of five messages per person, encouraging them to ask questions or connect directly with the U.S. Census Bureau. The group also plans to launch another massive text program to reach about 2 million people with cell phones throughout the state, according to Racher.
Still, South Florida continues to be the hardest hit region in the state with thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day amid warnings from some health officials that it could soon be the next epicenter for the virus.
And though digital outreach has expanded, some believe face to face interaction is much more effective —citing current circumstances for the low rate at which people have responded to the census so far.
“The first thing for me was just the impact that a pandemic would have on people's sense of priorities,” said Moné Holder, senior policy director for the New Florida Majority and head of the organization's Census program. “As we think about the Census being something we amplify, we also have to be sensitive to the current moment.”
SOUTH FLORIDA CENSUS NUMBERS LOW
The Census 2020 self-response rate in Florida as of July 26 is lower than the total self-response rate recorded around the same time during the last decennial survey in 2010. So far, the state has recorded a 59.7 percent self response rate. Ten years ago, it was 63.0 percent.
County numbers in South Florida are low, too. In Broward and Palm Beach County, self response rates are 3 to 5 percentage points lower than the total response rate recorded in 2010. Most alarming is Miami-Dade and Monroe County, where response rates are 8 to 11 points lower.
Some cities have shown worse percentages than their counties.
The city of Miami’s self-response rate is 13 percentage points lower than it was a decade ago. In Hialeah, the second largest city in Miami-Dade County, the self response rate is 16 points lower than in 2010.
“The challenge that we have particularly in Florida is that if you look at the population growth it's been tremendous, probably around 3 million since the last Census,” said Racher. “And most of those folks are foreign born.”
The data that is collected from the Census determines the amount of federal funding distributed between local communities, how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are reallocated and affects redistricting throughout the state.
EVEN BEFORE COVID-19, CENSUS EFFORTS STRUGGLED IN FLORIDA
In the summer of 2019, Florida Counts and several other organizations learned that the state would not be providing funds or a complete count committee for Census outreach.
The committee involves state government officials and community leaders who work together to inform the public about the importance of the Census.
“I think on the onset of the Census, we did a lot of advocacy on trying to make sure that the state of Florida allocated funding to make sure that communications and outreach was done at the highest level, and that didn't happen,” said Holder.
“We did a lot of advocacy around creating a statewide complete count committee way in advance of 2020, as most other states have done … we saw a slow response from our governor around doing that.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis did eventually announce a complete count committee in January of this year.
But self-response rates are still low, and Census advocates like Racher worry about a repeat from a decade ago.
“In 2010, without COVID and without some of the complications that have been brought about in this year’s Census, we missed 1.4 million people in Florida,” said Racher. “We had a self-response rate of 63 percent, which was three points lower than the U.S. average.”
Grassroots organizations are vital in educating their communities about the importance of Census participation, especially in hard-to-count Black and immigrant communities.
Florida Counts and organizations like the New Florida Majority have focused on providing information to Spanish and Creole-speaking communities.
“Right now we see in the middle of a pandemic how important health care and education is,” said Holder. “We have to live with those numbers and the impact it will have on our communities and our children for a decade.”