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It Takes Extra Effort by the U.S. Census Bureau to Reach People Far Outside Urban Areas

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Editor's note: This story was written before field operations for the 2020 Census were temporarily paused due to COVID-19. A phased restart began May 4 in select areas. Census Bureau employees will drop off census questionnaires at rural households that don’t have street addresses.

From the back of a pick-up truck, Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney waved to folks attending the Montana Crow Tribe Fair in Big Horn County, population 13,338.

In small rural counties like this, everyone knows everyone, and it is not uncommon for state officials to join in local festivities. This time, the lieutenant governor was eager to talk about his next big campaign push: the 2020 Census. 

Census Bureau employees take extraordinary measures to reach homes that can be difficult to access in rural and remote areas, whether they are located at the top of a mountain or at the end of a mile-long gravel drive.

“He walked through the entire parade talking about the census and how important it is,” said Mary Craigle, chief of the Research and Information Services Bureau at the Montana Department of Commerce, a partner of the U.S. Census Bureau.

She is one of many people working to ensure that everyone who lives in Montana is accurately counted in the 2020 Census this spring.

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts everyone who lives in the United States and five of its territories.

The census is required by the U.S. Constitution to determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. It also provides data for redrawing legislative districts. Responding is important because state, local and federal lawmakers use statistics from the decennial census to help them determine how more than $675 billion in federal funds will be spent every year for the next 10 years.

Funds influenced by census statistics are used for critical infrastructure and public services such as roads and bridges, hospitals and health care clinics, emergency response, and schools and education.

The majority of Montana is defined by the Census Bureau as “rural,” meaning most population centers have fewer than 2,500 people.

“The census is so important for basic reasons,” Craigle said. “Two billion dollars.”

That’s the amount the state gets every year from public funding that is based largely on census population counts. If anyone in the state isn’t counted, Craigle said, the state could miss out on thousands of dollars per person. This was especially detrimental for a state that’s the fourth-largest by geography and has a great need for highway construction dollars.

Reaching Out to Remote Places

Census Bureau employees take extraordinary measures to reach homes that can be difficult to access in rural and remote areas, whether they are located at the top of a mountain or at the end of a mile-long gravel drive.

Often, rural households do not have typical mailing addresses but use post office boxes in nearby towns. The Census Bureau does not mail to P.O. boxes. Instead, census takers deliver paper questionnaires to each home in such areas, along with information about options to respond by phone or online, and confirm/record the physical location of the home. In-person follow-ups are made if no response is received. 

For a small percentage of addresses (those in very remote areas), census takers will attempt to count people in person at the same time that others are being encouraged to self-respond.  This avoids the additional cost of having to revisit these areas during the non-response follow-up period.

Many people living on Indian reservations have only P.O. boxes or no specific address. That’s why many tribes ask the Census Bureau to send census takers in person to help American Indians respond to the census.

For the first time, everyone can respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone or by mail. Most people in rural America will receive invitations to respond to the census in the mail.

However, the lack of internet and broadband connectivity poses challenges for much of rural America.

Only 65% of counties where 100% of the population is in a rural area have a subscription to any sort of broadband internet, according to Census Bureau statistics.

Areas less likely to respond online, approximately 21.8% of households, will receive a paper questionnaire along with the invitation to respond online or over the phone.

Areas assigned to receive a paper questionnaire first have a low self-response rate to the Census Bureau’s ongoing American Community Survey (ACS), and have either low internet response rates, high population over age 65, or low rate of internet subscriptions.

Despite challenges, the Census Bureau has several ways to help ensure that every person living in the United States is counted, even those who are hard to reach.

“Update Enumerate” Sends Census Takers to Remote Places

Certain regions of Alaska and areas of a few other states are so remote that they require an operation called “Update Enumerate” that is different from the standard way the U.S. population is counted.

During Update Enumerate, census takers count people in person in the most hard-to-reach areas of the country. They visit these areas in pairs and stay until everyone is counted, sometimes for several days. 

The first people to be counted in the 2020 Census will be those who live in Toksook Bay, Alaska. Starting on January 21, census takers will be making their way to remote parts of Alaska, known as the Remote Alaska operation, to count the people living there.

Then, Update Enumerate will continue in parts of southeastern Alaska, remote Maine, and some American Indian areas that have requested to be counted in person starting in March.

This includes tribes in northern parts of Wisconsin and Michigan and one tribe in Florida. This Update Enumerate operation (not including its Remote Alaska suboperation) will count 8,000 of the most hard-to-reach households by 200 enumerators and 40 field supervisors.

Census takers involved in Update Enumerate travel by plane, boat and even dog sled to make sure they reach every person to be counted. 

“Southeastern Alaska includes islands that may only receive mail weekly, and you have to fly into these locations,” said Julia Lopez, project manager of the Update Enumerate operation of the Census Bureau. “We try to have more of a concentrated visit where we stay in the area for a couple of days and try to find someone for the enumeration before we leave the area.”

“Update Leave” Pinpoints Sparsely Populated Areas

Areas that are not remote but are still sparsely populated are designated for the Update Leave operation.

People in Puerto Rico and those who live in areas where homes have been damaged or destroyed by natural disasters are also counted this way. Census takers update the address of affected households and then leave a packet of information that includes the 2020 Census questionnaire. 

“We divided the country into blocks to do an analysis of their ‘mailability,’” Lopez said. “This means the post office has to be able to deliver to them.”

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. However, after looking at the mailability criteria, additional changes can be made for operational purposes. 

The Update Leave operation runs from mid-March to mid-April, when the rest of the country is receiving their invitations to respond online.

Why the Census Is Important for Rural America

Many federal programs are aimed at helping people in rural areas, and funding for those programs is often determined by census statistics.

There are several programs specifically geared toward rural growth, according to the Census Bureau working paper, “Uses of Census Bureau Data in Federal Funds.” There are also many general programs that focus on rural subsets, like Rural Education and the Department of Justice’s Rural Domestic Violence Assistance programs.

Other important programs informed by census statistics include Water and Waste Disposal Systems for Rural Communities, Rural Business Development Grants, and Rural Housing Preservation Grants.

“When residents live in an area that’s more rural than urban, they are trying to make decisions like how to build schools, what services need to be offered. Really, the only source of data that we have is U.S. Census Bureau data,” Craigle said. “The census is the one chance to get that really great information for rural America.” 

All Census Bureau field staff will be equipped with PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and receive training to observe social distancing protocols. For more information, visit 2020census.gov.

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Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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