Most U.S. residents started being able to respond to the 2020 census last week when the bureau's website went live and people started receiving notices to participate in the mail. As of Friday, 18.6 million households had answered the questionnaire, primarily online, said Al Fontenot, the bureau's associate director for decennial programs.
That accounts for 14% of total households in the U.S., according to Census Bureau figures released Friday. Midwestern states — Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas — had the highest response rates in the first week or so that most of the U.S. was able to start taking the census. Alaska, West Virginia and Montana had the lowest response rates.
This is the first once-a-decade census in which most people are being encouraged to fill out their form online, although people can still respond by telephone or by mailing back a form. The extension of the deadline came after several lawmakers and advocacy groups asked Trump administration officials to keep the count going past July. The most recent request was sent Thursday by Democratic U.S. Rep. Grace Meng of New York, who asked for an extension through September.
Earlier this week, the Census Bureau suspended field operations for two weeks out of concern about the health and safety of its workers and the U.S. public from the novel coronavirus. This primarily affected several thousands workers who were already dropping off questionnaires in rural areas with no fixed addresses, Puerto Rico and tribal areas.
The Census Bureau also was pushing back by a month its operations to count the homeless, which was supposed to begin at the end of the month, as residents of states encompassing three of the nation's largest cities — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — faced stay-at-home orders from the governors this week. Counts of people living in group quarters such as dormitories, prisons and nursing homes also was pushed back a month to May.
Most census takers won't go out into the field until May when they knock on the doors of homes whose residents haven't yet responded. The start of that operation also was pushed back two weeks to the end of May because of coronavirus.
“Of all of our worst nightmares of things that could have gone wrong with the census, we did not anticipate this set of actions," Fontenot said. “But our staff has been extremely resilient about looking for solutions and ways we can still be very effective in terms of reaching out to get a response from every person in the United States."
The bureau had planned to hire as many as 500,000 workers, primarily to knock on the doors of residents who haven't answered the questions by May, but bureau officials said Friday that the virus outbreak was leading them to consider hiring more temporary workers than previously planned.
As of Friday, more than 600,000 applicants had accepted job offers, but the bureau officials said they realized that some might drop out because of the coronavirus, and the Census Bureau was keeping open its job application process. The bureau so far has 2.8 million applicants and has switched all training online for new hires.
The Census Bureau is required by law to turn in state population counts to the president by Dec. 31. When asked if the bureau would meet that deadline, Fontenot said, “We don't want to attempt to forecast what will happen in the future."
The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats each state gets, as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending. A coalition of civil rights and advocacy groups on Friday praised the Census Bureau's decision to extend the deadline, saying it would give them more time for outreach efforts to get people to participate.
“Extending census operations is not the same as delaying the census," The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force said in a statement.
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