Census 2020: Vermont's Low Response Rate & Counting Amid A Pandemic

Jun 17, 2020

Just over half of Vermont residents have responded to the 2020 census. Passing the halfway mark is an important milestone, but still leaves the Green Mountain State with one of the lowest response rates in the country for the once-a-decade head count. We look at why Vermont's lagging behind, how census takers are working to improve the count and how they're reaching hard-to-count groups amid a global pandemic.

Our guests are:

See how Vermont compares to other states for responding to the 2020 Census

Loading...

Broadcast live on Thursday, June 18, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vermont ranks pretty low across the country in terms of response rate. As of June 16, the overall national rate was 61.5%, Vermont’s was 54.5%. Why do you think Vermonters aren’t responding at the same rate as other states?

Jeff Behler: Part of the reason Vermont is so low is because nearly 17% of the addresses in Vermont are hand-delivered the census package. These households have PO boxes which we can’t mail to since PO boxes are not tied to a physical address. We started this operation March 15 and we had to stop the operation two days in with COVID-19 and we just recently started it back up. Where the response rate is low, it’s in states where there’s a large percentage of households that are hand-delivered the invitation package.

For a map outlining Vermont's county-by-county response rate to the 2010 Census, head here.

Jason Broughton: We had a plan pre-COVID to promote awareness and participation in the census that would have required a lot more in-person events across the state. We quickly had to adapt all of that, which meant a lot of it had to be shut down and totally rethought. When that happened, we were at 32% participation. So, we are pleasantly surprised that we are at 54% given the last two months. A lot of it has been done through social media, basic word of mouth, and telephone calls. It's impressive to have moved the needle back fast, but with that being said, we still have a lot of work to do.

As we start to restart our operations, we are hoping we will not only match our participation numbers from 2010, which were around 62% but that we will surpass that. We understand the census bureau has asked for some relief and we are looking forward to a time adjustment in the near future.

Why is it important to fill out the census?

Jeff Behler: When we talk about the importance of the census, it really boils down to two things: representation at every level of government and funding. States will use this data for their redistricting efforts, for drawing their voting precincts for their school districts. Businesses use this data to determine where to expand. Hundreds of billions of dollars of funding are disseminated every year based upon formulas that use census data. Things like Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps, education, infrastructure, making sure we have enough parks.

With the current environment we’re in with COVID-19, I can’t think of an easier way to support your health community than filling out your census because that's where funding comes from for hospitals and emergency personnel. When we look at some of the decisions that are going to have to be made over the next few years related to COVID-19, whether that’s the number of vaccines we need or do we need more hospital beds — let’s make sure our leaders who are making those decisions have the most complete and accurate data to do that.

"Hundreds of billions of dollars of funding are disseminated every year based upon formulas that use census data." -Jeff Behler, New York Regional Director of the U.S. Census Bureau

Jason Broughton: Right now in our state, the Legislature and governor are discussing how to appropriate the CARES Act funding that was given to us as a state. Some of that is for libraries, and the unique part is that the money we were able to obtain from that was based on the 2010 Census. So, if the count is not correct it will impact what you get, and that is in real time. Any type of disaster experience that is going to impact the state, someone is going to make a calculation based on census data. So, it becomes so very important.

If we know that 54.5% of Vermonters have responded. Doesn’t that mean we know how many people are in Vermont? So why do we have to do this?

Jeff Behler: That’s a great question and I want to stress that the rates we’re talking about, the 54.5% — those are household rates. These are the number of households that have provided a response, not necessarily the population. While we would love to get to 100% of households responding, that’s unrealistic. So, what this number means, if we were to start knocking on doors tomorrow, we would have to knock on 45% of doors. The more households we get to self-respond will reduce the number of doors we’re going to need to knock on.

The census asks you, “How many people were living or staying in this apartment, household or mobile home on April 1st of 2020?” What if you are a homeless individual, and live at a shelter or in a tent? What do you do if your living situation isn’t represented?

Jeff Behler: We have an operation called service-based enumeration. We have determined that Sept. 22-24 we will be visiting every local food bank, soup kitchen and homeless shelter to get an enumeration of the population they serve. We have been working with local officials to create an exhaustive list of locations that people who are experiencing homelessness go, maybe behind a church, in the woods or underneath the overpass. One of those days in September we will go and visit every one of those locations in the early morning hours and do a simple headcount.

More from VPR: Shelter Plus Care: Addressing Homelessness In Rural Vermont

"We have to follow the federal definitions for the questions we ask, and right now that definition includes a binary male female for the gender question. I think based upon a lot of the concerns and complaints around the gender question, I think that will be a change for 2030." -Jeff Behler, New York Regional Director the U.S. Census Bureau

Jason Broughton: Our main mission at the local level is to deal with hard-to-count populations. And so the work of the local committees is so vitally important in making sure that the state is aware of where the gaps are at and who is currently being under-counted. And I would just say, given our current sentiment across the country, another aspect is there is a large hard-to-count population of those who distrust government. It’s going to be very difficult to ask someone to participate in something that they just think they should not be doing. So that’s a challenge unto itself to try to tell people why they should be participatory in a government they might not even like.

Why are there only two options on the census form for sex?

Jeff Behler: It’s a very difficult process for us to be able to change question. We have to follow the federal definitions for the questions we ask, and right now that definition includes a binary male/female for the gender question. For federal agencies to change that, they would need to prove a need. We the Census Bureau would then need to test out different methods of asking that question to ensure we’re getting the correct responses.

Based upon a lot of the concerns and complaints around the gender question, I think that will be a change for 2030, and we’re hopeful federal agencies will take the feedback they’re getting.

How are you reaching people that don’t speak English or don’t have a lot of information about the census?

Phet Keomanyvanh: Basically, the city is coming in as a cheer leader and creating resources for our local agencies. What we have been doing is specifically developing multilingual information, we’ve been sharing that with different agencies so they can promote them as well. We also developed a website so people can have access to additional resources of different languages they have.  

More from VPR: Wamerikani Wapya Na Mapambano Yao Ya Kutafsiri

More from VPR: 'Spreading Humility' While Learning Remotely During COVID-19

And is it effective?

Phet Keomanyvanh: Pre-COVID there was a big push to go out directly and talk to specific programming that was in front of refugee and migrant populations. We definitely have seen a spike in more people who are calling us from different programming to ask more information about the census, ask how to take it. Now that we are in a situation where we can’t go face to face, we’re developing more accessible ways for these people to use the telephone and online services with different agencies helping them navigate it.

Still have questions about how to fill out your census?

Find out more information at the 2020 Census website.  

You can respond to the census online here.

Or, you can fill out the census by calling the Census Bureau at its toll-free number: 884-330-2020.

You can also have your census mailed to you by responding to the questionnaire sent to your home in April. Find more information on responding by mail here.

For language support, the census bureau has resource translations in 59 non-English languages, and guides in American Sign Language, braille and large print.

If your question hasn’t been answered, email us at vermontedition@vpr.org, or call the New York Regional Census Center at 212-882-7100.