Rural News

Jennifer Emerling / There Is More Work To Be Done

Analysis: Rural America’s Lower Census Response May Be Due to Covid-19

This article first appeared in The Daily Yonder

By Lance George, HAC Director of Research and Information

The pandemic caused the Census Bureau to cancel its plans to hand-deliver announcements to households that are hard to reach by U.S. mail. That probably explains some of rural America’s low response rates to the Census so far.

As noted in numerous press reports and the Daily Yonder, a little less than half of U.S. households have completed their 2020 Census forms, but response rates are markedly lower in rural communities.

Low response rates in rural America are likely due to a combination of factors, some of which have been well documented (mistrust of government, lack of awareness, poor internet connectivity, indifference, etc.). But response rates for remote rural communities may be “artificially” low by the simple fact that many rural households have not received their census forms and have had no opportunity to participate.

For 2020, the U.S Census Bureau incorporated a “Type of Enumeration Area,” or TEA, for the process of delivering invitations to complete the decennial census questionnaire.  Approximately 95 percent of U.S. households were classified as “Self-Response.” Those households will receive the invitation to participate via standard mail delivery. Most of the Self Response households received Census invitations from mid-March through early April.

But approximately 5 percent of U.S. households were classified as “Update-Leave.” For those households, mail delivery information was less certain. In these communities, the census forms were to be hand delivered to improve response rates. Update/Leave communities were scheduled to have their census forms hand delivered March 15 – April 17. However, the Census Bureau suspended all field operations, including Update/Leave areas, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While Update/Leave areas contain roughly 5 million households, they are largely located in remote rural places and make up a substantial portion of some communities and regions. A Census Bureau map shows their planned contact strategy and Update/Leave areas in different parts of the country.

Steven Romalewski at City University of New York (CUNY) is mapping Update/Leave areas (shown in yellow in the map at the top of the story) along with response rates on his HTC 2020 website.

According to the Census Bureau’s latest guidance, delivery of notices to Update/Leave areas will now take place June 13-July 9. But the Census Bureau also encourages households to respond online now—even without an invitation. All respondents have to do is provide an address.

Yes, rural communities need to do a better job of participating in the Census. But some of our nation’s most rural areas – those often with the greatest needs – haven’t had a chance to be counted yet. Like many elements of our society, getting a good result requires a little more work and patience in rural communities. In this instance we need to be vigilant and work harder. While well touted, the importance of participating in Census 2020 cannot be overstated.

Lance George is the director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council (HAC). HAC is a national nonprofit that helps build homes and communities across rural America.