More than 40% of Hoosiers have already filled out their 2020 census forms, but concerns remain about getting the rest of the state to respond during a public health crisis.
The once-in-a-decade population count is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and the data is used to determine how much federal funding states and local communities receive. The results are also used to allocate the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.
More than $31 billion in federal funding for things like Medicaid, food stamps, federal student loans and highway projects is on the line for Indiana’s 6.7 million residents. Nationally, more than $1.5 trillion is at stake.
That funding and an accurate count could become even more vital for state and local governments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis is making it even harder to grab the attention of the public that is more focused right now on staying healthy and safe.
“It’s a tough thing because the news all the time is COVID, not census,” said Carol Rogers, co-director of the Indiana Business Research Center and the governor’s liaison to the census. “I thought about [Wednesday] as Census Day, but there was very little that I saw about the census. Under different circumstances I think it would have been a bigger deal for the media.”
Wednesday marked the date used by the Census Bureau to reference where a person lives. Census invitations arrived in mailboxes across the state and country in mid-March—when Indiana only had a couple dozen known COVID-19 cases—directing residents to go online and fill out the form or to respond by telephone or mail.
Since then, 42.4% of Hoosiers have filled out the questionnaire. That’s higher than the national rate of 38.4%.
In 2010, the state’s self-response rate, which refers to how many people fill out the form without a census worker showing up at the door to collect the information, was close to 70%. The self-response period continues through the end of July.
“I am very excited about where we are in the state of Indiana,” said Marilyn Sanders, director of the Census Bureau’s Chicago region, which includes Indiana.
Compared to neighboring states, Indiana’s self-response rate is slightly higher than Ohio’s and Kentucky’s, but lower than Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s. It is about the same as the rate in Illinois.
In central Indiana, Marion County has the lowest response rate so far, with about 39%. The highest response rate is in Hamilton County, with nearly 48% of residents having already submitted the form.
Dubois County in southwest Indiana has the highest response rate so far, at 54.5%.
Rogers, who is participating in her fourth census as the governor’s liaison, agreed that the state is doing well.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re reliable, practical people,” Rogers said.
One factor helping the Census Bureau this year is the ability of households to respond online. It’s the first time in the history of the census that this has been an option, and most invitations from the Census Bureau didn’t include a paper form. Instead, residents have been directed to a website or a phone number to call.
“The impact of having the ability to respond online gives us a greater opportunity to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be counted,” Sanders said.
Of the 42.4% of Hoosiers who have completed the census to date, 36% did so online.
But the coronavirus has caused some complications and delays in how the Census Bureau typically conducts the count.
The pandemic forced the Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to April 15, delayed the start of counts for the homeless and people living in group quarters like college dorms and nursing homes, and pushed back the deadline for wrapping up the head count from the end of July to mid-August.
The effect of the coronavirus could also impact population counts in college towns, like West Lafayette or Bloomington, where Purdue University and Indiana University students are no longer on campus.
College students are typically counted where they attend school, because that is where they live for most of the year.
Rogers said higher education institutions have been working with the Census Bureau to provide information on students who lived on campus, but it will be harder to capture students living in apartments because some may still be there, but others may have left town.
“That’s going to be a challenge, but that is being looked at,” Rogers said.
The Census Bureau is spending $500 million on an advertising and marketing campaign to promote the questionnaire, and Rogers said she hopes that will help spread the message despite all of the attention being on the coronavirus.
“Trying to amplify it is tough,” Rogers said. “But the message is simple: Fill it out.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has already filled out his census, has also mentioned it during his press briefings.
“This is critically important,” Holcomb said. “Every voice in Indiana needs to be heard.”