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Census Workers Hit The Streets In Kansas And Missouri To Combat Lackluster Response Rates

Jenny Garmon is leading census outreach for the Kansas City Public Library, but the pandemic has made it difficult to reach many communities.
Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
Jenny Garmon is leading census outreach for the Kansas City Public Library, but the pandemic has made it difficult to reach many communities.

Each person not counted in Kansas and Missouri could result in a potential loss of more than $1000 in funding for schools, health care and infrastructure. Advocates say a complete count would help racial justice efforts.

The impact of the 2020 Census is hard to overstate. According to a study by George Washington University, federal spending programs recently used 2010 Census data to distribute more than $1.5 trillion to state and local governments, nonprofits, businesses, and households nationwide.

But in much of Kansas and Missouri, the response so far has been underwhelming.

In Kansas City, Missouri, where the response rate is just 56%, census workers started going door-to-door July 16, looking to get a jump on a national operation beginning in August to follow-up on non-responses.

Kansas City councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw organized a press conference last week to push for a complete count.

“The 2020 Census will dictate the next decade of our lives in real and compelling ways,” she said.

For example, the government didn’t directly give Kansas City coronavirus relief funding, in part, because that money was distributed based on 2010 Census data, and Kansas City fell short of the population requirement.

In much of Kansas, the response isn't much better. Census enumerators will be deployed throughout most of the state this week.

Local groups, like the Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City Public Schools and the Mid America Regional Council started preparing for the 2020 Census years ago, only to be thwarted by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Outreach efforts decimated by the coronavirus

Jenny Garmon is with the Kansas City Public Library, which has been preparing for this year’s census for more than a year.

“I was really excited. We were going to have Representative (Emanuel) Cleaver II at the central library to do a public forum discussion about it and all of that just had to be shelved because it wasn't safe any longer with COVID-19,” Garmon said.

When Kansas City shut down due to the virus, the library and other regional partners tried to get the word out about the census through billboards, signage on buses and mailers.

A Kansas City resident registers to vote at one of the Kansas City Library's census outreach events at Swope Health Center.
Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City resident registers to vote at one of the Kansas City Library's census outreach events at Swope Health Center.

In Wichita, census officials say they had car parades every Saturday to encourage people to fill out the form online.

With cities re-opening businesses, advocates are holding in-person events outdoors.

But contacting hard-to-reach communities continues to be an uphill battle.

At an event at Seven Oaks Park in Kansas City last week, Garmon only talked to one person about filling out the census. The park, located at 37th Street and Kensington, is in a census tract with the lowest response rates, and a third of homes there aren't connected to the internet.

Garmon said the low-turnout was disappointing, particularly because it’s exactly the kind of neighborhood that could benefit most from an accurate count.

“I'd love to talk with more people about the census and why it's important, then how easy it is to respond to it. I would love that,” Garmon said.

“So it's hard not to have that interaction, but it's also just a learning experience for me too, about being patient.”

Communities are still suffering from COVID-19

Many of the areas in Kansas and Missouri where responses have been the lowest are the same neighborhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus.

In southwest Kansas, areas with high Latino populations have seen low participation. COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants have taken a toll in that region.

Plus, a proposed question about citizenship status that was ultimately removed from the 2020 Census stoked fears in the diverse community about how personal information might be used.

Emily Kelley, the U.S. Census Bureau partnership coordinator for Kansas, says they’re trying to assure people that census data is secure.

“We have partners working diligently in those areas to engage people…so there's an understanding of why we do the census — that it's easy, safe, and important,” Kelley said.

Kelley says college towns like Manhattan, Kansas, have also seen lower response rates because many students returned home during the pandemic. That could result in an low count for those areas.

In Kansas City, Missouri, low-income areas, immigrant communities and predominantly Black communities in the third, fourth and fifth city council districts are showing lower rates than the rest of the city.

Those are also the same areas withthe highest numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Using the census to fight for racial equity

Rick Usher, who’s leading census efforts for Kansas City, Missouri, says people in many neighborhoods are struggling to make ends meet. He says areas with low response rates also correlate with neighborhoods internet access is limited.

“The pandemic has brought greater awareness to these disparities that have existed in the community for decades,” Usher said.

Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson said that’s exactly why it’s so important for the most distressed parts of the city to make sure they’re counted.

As Black Lives Matter demonstrations ripple across the country, Robinson says filling out the census is a crucial part of the fight for racial justice.

“Because oftentimes in the community as elected leaders, we hear the tale of two cities — they have, we don't have,” Robinson said.

She said being able to prove that inequity with statistics and data allows government officials to identify disparities and work to close the gaps.

“But foundational in that is to say, ‘I'm here, I'm present,’” Robinson said.

Robinson also said it’s an important way to make sure black and brown voices are represented in public office.

“And so if you want people that represent your neighborhood to be able to speak to your needs, then you need to respond to the census,” Robinson said.

But with coronavirus cases on the rise again, more people may be wary of in-person interactions — and the October 31st deadline is nearing. Households can still fill out the form online at my2020census.gov.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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