BOONE — The 2020 Census count is underway, but so far, response rates from Watauga County and other High Country counties are low compared with the average rates across the state and nation.
The 2020 Census will count the population and housing of all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other U.S. territories. The results determine the number of seats for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives. The tally is usually given on Dec. 31 of each Census year, but this time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers will be delivered April 30, 2021.
COVID-19 has changed the 2020 Census timeline. Census takers started dropping off reminders to respond and paper questionnaires to households in March, but stopped after three days due to the pandemic. They will continue from June 13 to July 9.
Assistant Regional Census Manager Marilyn Stephens said she wrote the updated dates in pencil in her calendar, as they are based on how the pandemic unfolds.
For the first time in history, the Census can be filled out online, by phone or by mail. The bureau mailed out questionnaires on March 12 to households across the nation. As of May 7, 57.3 percent of the country has responded.
“I call this the ‘Census of Options,’” Stephens said. “We’ve never had all these options to respond.”
The self-response period will close on Oct. 31, instead of July 31.
North Carolina’s response rate was 53.1 percent as of May 7, with Watauga County’s response rate sitting at 36.7 percent. Stephens said 33.1 percent of Watauga County has responded online.
Stephens said many households in Watauga County are in “update-leave” zones. An update-leave zone is any household that does not get mail delivered to the doorstep, but instead from a P.O. box.
Census takers hand-deliver questionnaires to these addresses, an operation that halted due to COVID-19. Stephens said these zones are contributing to the county’s low response rate.
“That was definitely a disruption, having to pause that delivery,” Stephens said.
Stephens said Avery County has a huge number of update-leave zones, so most households will have questionnaires hand-delivered. Avery County’s self-response rate currently at 21.1 percent.
Ashe County’s self-response rate sits at 42.9 percent.
Watauga County Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman said the lowest response rate in Watauga County is in the western part of Boone. He said he thinks college classes moving online and students leaving Boone is why the response is so low.
Census data is used to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, draw school district boundaries and plan for local government services and infrastructure. The data could also affect highway project funding and fund distribution for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
Each year, the federal government distributes more than $675 billion to states and communities based on Census data.
Non-response follow-ups, where Census takers interview households members in person, will happen Aug. 11 through Oct. 31.
In-person activities, including all interactions with the public, enumeration, office work and processing activities, will incorporate the most current guidance to promote the health and safety of staff and the public, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. This will include personal protective equipment and social distancing practices.
Furman said he is a little worried about Watauga County’s response rates for the 2020 Census.
“But again, I guess this is an exceptional year,” Furman said.