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Census outreach: There’s still time to make a difference

Cecilia Oregón, MPP, MPH
Cecilia Oregón, MPP, MPH
Executive Director, Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy

Having grown up in a predominantly Latinx community in Los Angeles, CA, I know firsthand how distrust of government could reduce participation in the 2020 Census.  Fear of the data being used to target a person or family can be overwhelming.  However, it is communities like the one I grew up in that stand to benefit from a full and fair count of residents.   

A complete census count helps ensure adequate funding that matches the level of need in those communities.  Census data are used in allocating resources for public health programs like Medicaid, Medicare Part B, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and various reproductive health programs. Community services are also funded based on information from the census including resources for infrastructure planning and construction, emergency preparedness and response, school lunch programs, Head Start, housing supports and more.  The data are also used for reapportioning Congressional seats and redistricting, to ensure that representation correctly matches the number of people living in communities across the nation. 

Completing the census takes less than 10 minutes. People have the option to fill out the census from home with a computer or cell phone.  They can also complete and return census forms that were sent by mail, respond to neighborhood census takers, or complete the census by phone Respondents should note that the census will never ask for financial information such as social security numbers, bank accounts, or credit card numbers, or for money or donations.  The census focuses instead on basic demographic information about who is living in the household.   

It’s not too late to complete the 2020 Census or to reach out to others about it.  Even now during the COVID-19 pandemic, census takers will be conducting door-to-door outreach to homes that haven’t responded.   

Reducing the Risk of An Undercount 

COVID-19 has increased needs for social services and resources. At the same time, it has increased the risk of an undercount.   

The national self-response rate is currently 66%, far lower than the final census mail response rates of 74% reached in 2010 and 2000.  In addition, door-to-door outreach is challenging because of social distancing measures and the Census Bureau recently moved up the extended deadline for neighborhood outreach from October 31 to September 30.  This makes it more difficult to reach populations at greatest risk of being undercounted.   

Historically, groups most likely to be undercounted include households with recent immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, people of color, low-income households, children under 5 years old, renters, people with unstable housing, and people who are currently homeless.  Everyone living in the U.S. must be counted, regardless of citizenship status, and no questions about citizenship are asked in the 2020 Census.  Census responses are required by law to be kept confidential and secure. 

Health systems like Kaiser Permanente have a strong interest in a complete census. An undercount reduces funding for programs serving low-income families and individuals, disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable members and communities.  We also use census data to better understand member and community needs, and to design services, products, and programs to meet those needs.  

Taking Action 

Kaiser Permanente has continued to encourage people to participate in the 2020 Census, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This includes, for example, outreach to Kaiser Permanente employees, social media postings from senior Kaiser Permanente leaders, census reminder cards distributed through prescription drug bags, and video testimonials by Kaiser Permanente physicians. 

With so many of us spending lots of time at home right now, this is the perfect time to sign on to and take the census – and to encourage others to do this as wellThe census provides translated web pages and guides in 60 languages and in braille and large print We all should be countedThere’s still time to make a difference. 

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