Reminders to fill out the U.S. Census have probably flooded your mailbox for the last couple months, but as COVID-19 puts a halt on usual outreach tactics, Santa Cruz County census workers have restrategized to make sure as many people as possible fill out this important form. 

“We’re definitely pivoting in every single way possible to reach people directly,” said Joseph Watkins, assistant project director for the 2020 Census Project in Santa Cruz. “And we’re coming up with more [ideas] as every day passes.”

The census is a count taken every 10 years of every person living in the U.S. The data it collects is incredibly important, impacting everything from congressional representation to federal funding for infrastructure and school lunch programs.

The census self-response phase was scheduled to close on July 31 but has been extended to Oct. 31 in hopes that local outreach will continue to increase the response rate.

An inaccurate census count could reduce funding for programs like sexually transmitted disease education and tracing, routine health screenings and behavioral health support, said UC Santa Cruz community studies lecturer Andrea Steiner.

“If the numbers are outdated, then the allocations will be wrong. In an extremely stable society, where people don’t migrate or move around, […] it might be okay to rely on old figures,” Steiner said in an email. “But that’s not the United States, and it’s certainly not California.”

Due to shelter in place guidelines, the 2020 Census Project in Santa Cruz has postponed many of its physical outreach strategies, including food distribution. Now, the project is dedicating more time to phone banking, while maintaining a public awareness campaign and limited in-person outreach. 

As of May 4, 60.6 percent of households in Santa Cruz County have filled out their census form. The 2020 Census Project set a goal of 75 percent, which assistant project director Joseph Watkins said is still attainable. 

The biggest obstacle to a complete count is figuring out how to reach hard-to-count populations, including low-income areas, non-native English speakers or communities with limited internet access. But Steiner still believes census outreach and education is possible.

“The best census-gathering comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and that’s especially true in communities that lack privilege,” Steiner said in an email. “Younger people need to educate their parents, adults need to educate their siblings and neighbors. […] I’d love to see a campaign of posters in windows and lawn signs and such. Local advertising for the safety and importance of the census.”

Reaching these hard-to-count populations is a goal of the 2020 Census Project in Santa Cruz. Watkins also sees the census as a way for the public to engage with and help their community. 

“Folks that are being hurt or feeling the impacts economically of this virus, if they want to do something when they feel helpless in their houses, the census is a huge way to do that,” Watkins said. “It’s guaranteed money comes back to this community.”