Coronavirus Pandemic Interrupts Arkansas Census Outreach Plans

May 18, 2020

Participants in this month's Arkansas 2020 Complete Count Committee meeting last Wednesday discussed efforts being done in different regions of the state to encourage participation in this year's census.
Credit Arkansas Citizens Access Network

As COVID-19 has disrupted plans and normalcy for workplaces, schools and public life over the last few months, it also brought a halt to long-discussed outreach efforts in Arkansas for the U.S. Census. But as businesses reopen, so too resumes a campaign to get residents to participate.

In 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the 2020 Complete Count Committee in an effort to maximize the accuracy this year. The committee, chaired by Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, is working to increase awareness of the census across the state.

“I think Arkansans now understand the impact of those numbers,” McGill said in an interview. “Many of our education dollars are driven from the census numbers, as well as [funding for] our highways and roads.”

The census is conducted every 10 years to provide data for Congressional redistricting and is the determining factor for federal funding for vital programs, including coronavirus stimulus money.

At a public forum last November in Jacksonville, hosted by the Central Arkansas Library System, KUAR and the League of Women Voters, McGill and others involved in the census detailed the extensive outreach plans the committee had in place. However, those have since been interrupted by the outbreak of the virus.

“COVID-19 has had a major impact on our ability to generate the activity and participate in all the events we had lined up to create awareness and to encourage people to participate in the 2020 census,” McGill said.

Events featuring large crowds or door-to-door activities may not be able to take place as scheduled, but McGill and other members of the committee say they’re still hopeful that some will occur later in the year, as the deadline for completing the U.S. Census has been extended to late October.

Field offices reopened on May 6, McGill said, to recruit workers who will assist in the next phase of conducting the census. Normally at this point in previous census years, workers would be knocking on the doors of homes that had not responded to mailers from the U.S. Census. This year, packets will be left outside of homes, he said.

McGill hopes the extension of the census deadline will provide a greater opportunity to increase participation awareness through social media, billboards and signage around the state. He says robust efforts are taking place in every part of the state to encourage participation. That’s especially challenging in rural areas, where many people use post office boxes rather than their home addresses to receive mail.

The national average for people to provide needed census data themselves online is 59.5%. McGill said he is encouraged that Arkansas is just below that at 54.3%, which is better than the self-response rate a decade ago. Residents who haven’t responded yet can go to the U.S. Census website to provide their information.