COVID, internet deserts and mistrust harm Georgia’s Census results

September 24, 2020
9 mins read
COVID, internet deserts and mistrust harm Georgia's Census results

Last September, Gov. Brian Kemp named 66 state leaders to promote the 2020 Census as members of the statewide Complete Count Committee. In November he gave the committee a pep talk to urge that they give the high stakes headcount their all.

Co-chaired by Anna Miller of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget and Rusty Haygood of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the committee’s motto is “Every. One. Counts.”

But with the end of 2020 census approaching in a week, only an estimated 92.3% of Georgia households are counted as of Wednesday. Just a handful of states are faring worse.

Officials say the confusion of the pandemic and mixed messages from the federal government along with the state’s long-standing disadvantages of a poor rural broadband network and growing mistrust of census data collectors are all contributing to Georgia’s low ranking.

“There are a lot of factors going on with Georgia’s response rates,” Miller said Tuesday. “All the agencies are kind of screaming about this now, too. There’s just been a lot of other things going on in the media. 

“No. 1, there’s been a lot of confusion around when an end date is, when not an end date is, what is going to be on the census, what’s not going to be on the census. That was not ever anticipated in trying to get out marketing messaging,” she said. 

Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office announced a press conference set for today at the Capitol to “provide an urgent message for all Georgians to participate” in the census by the Sept. 30 deadline.

About $1.5 trillion in federal funding is at stake across the country through the census for public programs in education, health care, transportation and more over the next 10 years. In 2017, Georgia received more than $24 billion from federal spending programs that relied on 2010 census data to disburse funds. The numbers are also used to carve out political districts and apportion congressional seats. 

Confusion in Washington spreads to Georgia

The U.S. Census Bureau suspended field operations in March as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation. On April 13, the bureau announced a plan to extend the count for 120 days

President Donald Trump initially threw his support behind a deadline extension, and the U.S. House and Senate both introduced legislation to move back the deadline, though only the House passed a bill to do so. The bureau at first planned its data collection as if it had the extra time, but in August, the bureau abruptly announced it would instead accelerate its timeline, ending its counting efforts a month early, on Sept. 30.

That decision to shorten the count did not come from the U.S. Census Bureau, according to a report from the U.S. Inspector General’s office. The report, released Monday, does not identify who made the decision.

Investigators also found the accelerated schedule will increase the risk of an inaccurate and incomplete census.

A federal judge in California has ordered the census bureau to continue the count for now, but resolution is still pending as the deadline approaches.

Those changes at the federal level led to difficulties for the people tasked with selling people on participating in the census in Georgia.

Two Complete Count Committee members, Lori Geary and Tharon Johnson, served as co-executive directors of a statewide marketing campaign to push participation in the census. Firms represented by Geary and Johnson entered into two $80,000 contracts with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. The two traveled the state until the start of the pandemic made public events impossible.

“The pandemic hit, and it was like the air was let out of the balloon,” Geary said. “People weren’t focused on filling out their census forms. The governor’s office and state officials have taken this seriously. They did not underestimate the importance of a full count and made it a priority. But for six months, state government and Georgia families have faced emergency disruptions to daily life.”

Geary said she and Johnson contacted Georgia’s senators this week and asked them to support extending the deadline.

“Tharon and I have felt as though there is still so much confusion over the deadline. When the U.S. Census Bureau announced an extension on responses, due to COVID-19, it was originally set for October 31st. That was moved up to September 30th. This does not give enumerators, hired by the U.S. Census Bureau, enough time to get to the homes where census forms were not filled out, especially in rural areas,” she said. “What is heartbreaking for us is knowing there are undercounted populations in cities and counties in Georgia that need the representation and the federal dollars the most, especially children.”

Their contracts were set expire April 30 with an option for renewal that was dropped.

“That was always the plan, the end of April,” Miller said. “That was the public push, and that coincided with the ad buy schedule that we did as well. Their contract ending in April, it was always going to be that way, regardless of the pandemic.”

Another setback for Georgia’s head count arrived in the form of a U.S. Census Bureau announcement of a deadline extension in April, two weeks into a major three-week advertising campaign on TV stations across Georgia.

“The last week of our ad buy, the census bureau announced that they were extending the deadline, at that point, to Oct. 31,” Miller said. “I halted all of our buys and made the decision to hold that money until the end of July, first of August, because that is when non-response follow-up — the door-knockers — was scheduled to start again.”

In addition to the contract work, the governor’s office transferred three staff members to promoting the census, and the state has enlisted the help of groups including the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Georgia Municipal Association, Georgia public libraries, Valdosta State University and Fair Count, the nonprofit founded by Kemp’s 2018 Democratic rival for the governor’s job, Stacey Abrams, to get the word out.

Staffing problems

Despite the pandemic’s interruption, Georgia’s self-response rate — the portion of people who filled out their forms without prodding by census officials — is on par with its 2010 total and better than other states with a higher overall response rate, said Fair Count’s CEO, Rebecca DeHart.

“We weren’t doing too shabby compared to the other states,” she said. “Unfortunately, since we moved into the non-response follow-up period, which is where the enumeration happens, it’s not just that there’s COVID, it’s that it’s left our areas’ census officers completely depleted. They’re understaffed, they’re under-resourced.”

For a time, the Columbus-area census office was the worst-performing census office in the nation, and the Macon-area census office was the fifth-worst, DeHart said.

But while Georgia was struggling, the U.S. Census Bureau was sending workers to other parts of the country.

“These other areas, typically northern areas, whiter states, the actual census bureau has been able to go out there and get their enumeration done in much greater numbers,” DeHart said. “So while we were doing better than them in self-response, they have skyrocketed past us because the census bureau has more resources to be doing the door-knocking and to be finishing the enumeration.”

“I want to be very clear, I don’t blame the census bureau,” she added. “The hiring, they weren’t up to capacity. It’s not up to capacity right now. COVID has a lot to do with that.”

DeHart also stopped short of blaming the state government’s efforts for the problems, but more resources could have made a difference, she said.

“I think they definitely could do more,” she said. “California invested $180 million because they know what’s at stake, resources and political power. Fair Count sits on the statewide complete count committee, and there are a lot of really dedicated people, they’re trying to do what they can with very, very little.”

The Complete Count Committee received $1.5 million for marketing efforts in the 2020 state budget.

Structural problems

Georgia already faced tough challenges to ensure a complete count before the pandemic threw the world for a loop.

Chief among them are a lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas and a historical mistrust of the census among some population groups, especially in hard-to-count areas.

The fact that this year’s census is the first to be conducted primarily online does not help, Miller said.

“The number one way we’re trying to get responses right now is online, and you couple that with an area that may not be as tech savvy, not to mention it may have spotty broadband,” she said. “You’re also dealing with a population that has historically not really done very well in responses, so you’re trying to change behaviors as well.”

The three Georgia counties with the lowest self-response rates, Quitman, Hancock and Jenkins, are rural and no more than 29% of households in those counties responded. Fewer than 12% of respondents in those counties filled out their forms online. More than half of households in those three counties lack high-speed broadband access.

In suburban Atlanta’s Fayette County, which had the highest self-response rate in Georgia at 77.4%, more than 70% of residents completed their forms online. Only 1% of Fayette County homes do not have high-speed broadband access.

About 100,000 rural residents were part of a program called update and leave, where they were not mailed a census form.

“They were supposed to wait for a census worker to come and deliver their paper forms to their front porch, or to their door,” DeHart said. “And when COVID happened, that whole operation got shut down, so they didn’t even get their forms until much later. So there was a large number of rural areas within the state that didn’t even get invited to participate for the first time in the census until much after everyone else did.”

Other rural residents have simply become accustomed to filling out the census when someone comes to their door, DeHart said.

“What we hear from a lot of folks, especially older folks in rural areas is, ‘Oh, yes, yes, the census, I’m going to do it, but I’m going to wait till somebody comes and knocks on my door because I don’t trust doing it online. I don’t do anything on the internet. I’ve always done it with someone at my door when I can see them and talk through it,’” she said. “We’re calling folks in these underperforming counties and letting them know, ‘Hey, if you haven’t done your census and you’re still planning to do it, somebody might not be coming at your door.’”

In addition to its large rural population, Georgia is also the state with the third-highest percentage of Black residents, according to the census bureau’s 2018 population estimate, and it has a large number of Hispanic residents – No. 10 among states in raw population numbers. Those groups are among the most likely to be undercounted in the census.

A worst-case scenario in Georgia could leave more than 136,000 Black residents and more than 39,000 Hispanic residents uncounted, according to data from the Urban Institute compiled before the pandemic.

An undercount of Black people in Georgia could lead to a loss of $97.4 million in federal funding solely from Medicaid and four childcare programs in 2020, according to a study by the Thurgood Marshall Institute.

Some Georgians of all races and ethnicities simply do not trust the government, including the census, but some in the Latino community say rhetoric from the president has exacerbated that mistrust in the runup to this year’s count.

President Trump has called for the census to include a question about citizenship, but his effort was blocked after a years-long legal fight. In July, the president issued an order to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population counts that determine congressional representation.

That effort was also stymied by the courts, but the public pressure on immigration still sowed doubt in the census among some Hispanic Georgians, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

“It is a concern with regards to the Latino community, but once we educate people about the confidential nature of the information, the individual information provided to the census and how secure it is, people are more prone to participate, given the fact that it will bring greater resources to our community,” he said. 

“The unfortunate situation is that the Trump administration did use political rhetoric to undermine broader census efforts, but through education, we were able to overcome some of those concerns.”

Reaching out to Georgians of all races who are skeptical of the census and explaining how it will benefit them will be the Complete Count Committee’s No. 1 mission until Sept. 30, Miller said. That’s complicated by the fact that the census volunteers are competing for attention with a global pandemic, an unemployment crisis, protests over police violence and civic unrest, and a historic presidential election on the horizon.

“It’s almost like information overload that everyone is dealing with right now. It’s like, you can’t process everything,” she said. “The biggest thing we’re trying to overcome now is the people who didn’t respond 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we’re trying to convince them now in a cacophony of other things going on the importance of this. That is where we’re at. That’s the problem now, as we’re trying to push that last 7.7%.”

Georgians can still participate in the census by returning a mailed form, by phone at 844-330-2020, or online at through September 30. Completing the census typically takes about 10 minutes.

Photo: At a Complete Count Committee meeting last November Gov. Brian Kemp urged 50 members to give their all because the 2020 Census would “literally shape the future of our state.” Georgia’s response rate is lagging in the bottom 10 in the country as the count winds down. File/Georgia Recorder

Events Calendar

Georgia Newswire