Census Day has come and passed, and Umatilla County is lagging behind the rest of the country in making sure they’re represented in the 2020 U.S. Census.
“Had we not had the coronavirus situation going on, I think Census Day (April 1) would have probably been in the news more than we’re seeing,” said Bob Waldher, Umatilla County planning director and member of the county’s Complete Count Committee.
As of Wednesday, Waldher said roughly 28.5% of Umatilla County residents had submitted their information to the census. That trails both Oregon, which has 38% of its residents reporting across the state, and the average response rate across all 50 states in the U.S., which is currently at 36%.
The once-a-decade count has particular importance for Oregon, which could receive a sixth seat in the U.S. House of Representative in addition to the $1.5 trillion in federal dollars that will be distributed based on the responses.
Umatilla County is particularly behind, but the COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges for the U.S.Census Bureau all across the country. While this is the first time in history that people can be counted via telephone or internet, the questionnaire wasn’t rolled out until the middle of March, just when the crisis was escalating around the U.S.
Stay home orders and social distancing guidelines have hamstrung efforts to remind people about being counted by canceling events and plans for door-to-door knocking. The U.S. Census Bureau has already suspended all field operations until at least mid-April and delayed starting counts for the homeless and people living in groups, such as dorms and nursing homes.
The deadline for self-reporting has also been pushed back from the end of July to mid-August, though Waldher said that’s likely to be extended even longer. But while coronavirus is disrupting the census, the county is encouraging residents to take advantage of their new opportunities to be counted.
“Now is a good time, people are cooped up at home so it’s the perfect time to fill it out online,” Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer said.
In fact, both Shafer and fellow Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering said they submitted their info online earlier this week.
“It’s a simple process for anyone to get online and take care of,” Elfering said.
The Umatilla County Complete Count Committee, which was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was formed in October 2019, is also looking for new ways to get the word out there during the pandemic.
With the help of Pac/West Communications, the committee is distributing materials about the census in lunch bags and homework packets that are being given to students with all schools switching to distance education for the rest of the year.
In addition to this, the committee is sending census information to all addresses and P.O. boxes in the county. Usually materials are only sent to people’s home addresses.
Umatilla County may be lagging behind at the moment, but Walder is confident that won’t last.
“I think we’ll see those numbers pick up as folks become more aware of the census,” he said.