In the week and a half since Utahns were first asked to participate online in the once-a-decade census, the coronavirus shut down businesses, restaurants, churches and led to a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Then a big earthquake hit.
Still, Utah managed to have a higher response than the rest of the nation so far.
Through Saturday, 20% of Utah households — one of every five — had responded. That was a bit higher than the national average of 19.2%, the Census Bureau reports.
Response rates around the state varied from a high of 26.1% in Cache County to a low of 0.1% in three counties: Rich, Piute and Garfield.
But those and other rural counties have a good excuse for a low response. Many people there have not yet received their invitations to participate, which include the personal code needed to respond online or by phone (the code can be obtained online without the invitation).
The Census Bureau will not send invitations to post office boxes — which are common in rural areas — and instead uses workers to hand deliver them to homes. However, because of the coronavirus, the Census Bureau last week suspended all field work for at least two weeks.
Salt Lake County — where the earthquake hit last week, and where aftershocks are still rumbling — had a response rate of 21.8%. Rates for other Wasatch Front counties include 22.3% in Utah County, 21.8% in Davis and 19.4% in Weber.
“We’re very encouraged by the early response rates that we’ve seen so far,” especially with all the distractions from the virus and earthquake, said Evan Curtis, co-chairman of Utah’s Complete Count Committee.
While many people are sheltering at home, Curtis adds, “I hope they will go online and respond to my2020census.gov, while they have some time to do it.”
He said the coronavirus and earthquake show the need to respond. “Census data directly impacts how we respond to emergency. It directly helps fund our health care systems,” he said. It helps identify vulnerable populations during outbreaks of disease.
The census will determine how the federal government divides $1.5 trillion a year among the states and communities.
That’s important enough that the Utah Legislature approved spending $1 million on advertising and education to help ensure that Utahns answer the census. In comparison, California is spending $154 million. Also, the Census Bureau itself plans to spend more than $500 million this year — more than ever — to promote the census as safe, easy and beneficial to communities.
The census helps to identify such things as where to build new schools and transportation projects. It helps enforce civil rights laws related to age, gender, race and ethnicity.
Data is also used for redistricting of political districts, including determining how many U.S. House of Representatives seats each state receives.
The Census Bureau projects that only six of every 10 households will respond on their own quickly. After five reminders (including one that encloses a paper questionnaire), the agency will start sending census workers to nonresponding homes — mainly from May until August.
If they can’t find people at home, they ask for information about them from neighbors, landlords and others.