This was supposed to be the year of the census. It still is, but it’s also the year of the coronavirus pandemic. That makes it harder for community advocates to hold in-person events and get people counted.
The parking lot of an east Charlotte Food Lion looked like a party on Saturday afternoon. A group of people wearing masks decorated their cars while Marvin Gaye and Megan Thee Stallion played from a loudspeaker.
They were preparing their cars for the Parade of Counts, a caravan reminding people about the 2020 census. On Saturday, the participants drove throughout Charlotte's Grier Heights neighborhood.
“I grew up over here, so I’m very passionate about bringing whatever resources we have,” said James Lee with the advocacy group Project 70Forward. “Part of that is making sure that you’re counted, and part of that is making sure you know about the census and know how important it is.”
This event was supposed to be part of a series of census block parties. But because of COVID-19, in-person events were canceled or changed.
When Lee was homeless, he was part of one of the harder-to-reach populations. He wants to make sure everyone’s counted, especially now that the coronavirus made reaching people more difficult.
“Because of COVID, everybody has had to change,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re the only ones that had to change. Society has had to change, so now we get a chance to set the slate over.”
The census determines a state’s representation in Congress, and depending on the final tally, North Carolina could gain a seat in the U.S. House.
NC Counts Coalition Executive Director Stacey Carless said the census also gives funding to other programs.
“It’s extremely important for North Carolina, not only because of political representation but a lot of federal programs that really help our communities to be healthy and vibrant,” Carless said, referring to education and housing programs, Medicaid and Medicare. “They are substantially funded by census-guided funding.”
Carolina Demography is a group of specialists who keep track of population changes in the state. It’s monitoring the census count in North Carolina. Its data shows that near the end of March, Mecklenburg County had a 16% response rate.
The number jumped to 65% by July 19. That’s pretty close to where the county landed in the last three censuses when there wasn’t a global pandemic. But there are still areas inside Mecklenburg County with a response rate of less than 35%.
Carless said the key to counting everyone is making sure you’re reaching historically undercounted populations like young children, immigrants and minorities.
“We definitely wanted to increase that response rate for the 2020 census so we make sure we have a very accurate depiction of what North Carolina looks like,” Carless said.
The coronavirus outbreak made reaching those hard-to-reach groups even harder.
Libraries and health centers, which provided internet access to fill out census forms, closed. Events meant to educate people and help them fill it out were canceled or moved online. COVID-19 has forced groups to get creative with outreach, and they are stepping up.
A parade of vehicles drove through the streets of Grier Heights on Saturday, some are decorated with signs reading “Census 2020” and “U Matter, B Counted."
The cars were honking and yelling reminders about the census. Shneila Lee was wearing big and colorful butterfly wings riding in the bed of a truck. She called herself "the census fairy" and said some of the people spreading the word are used to making the best of what they have to make a difference.
“We’ve all come from situations where we’ve literally had to make a knife out of a spoon,” Lee said. “So when we’re given those same problems right now, we’re over here, thriving, we’re happy because we already know how to fix the situation as opposed to, ‘What do we do now? What do we do now?’”
She said that people familiar with neighborhoods are more likely to convince residents about the importance of filling out the census: “So if Becky comes to knock on your door, you’re going to be like, ‘What does this lady want?’”
Naion Pride, who was riding throughout the neighborhood in his motorcycle, believes you can cut through the noise of social media by meeting people one on one.
“A lot of times with social media, you don’t know where a lot of things come from,” Pride said. “But going into the grassroots neighborhood, they know. This is where it needs to be started out.”
Caravans like this one have been rolling through historically undercounted Charlotte neighborhoods since June.
Outeach does not end here, and next month, census workers start knocking on doors.
Nancy Ross works with Meck Counts 2020, a census advocacy group. Reaching people who live in apartment buildings while social distancing is a priority.
“We’re looking at how do you reach those apartment complexes and get those folks to answer, whether we go out and put door hangers-on…do some marketing, or… we micro-target to those who have cellphones in the area," Ross said. "Or do we call their houses and see if we can get that data?"
They don’t have a lot of time left.
There will be more knocking on doors, caravan events, social media outreach and virtual question-and-answer sessions up until Oct. 31, when the census is due.
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