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How AAPI groups are changing census outreach amid coronavirus

Community leaders fear the pandemic will lead to an undercount of Asian Americans, who are already the least likely to complete the survey.
MinKwon census outreach staff Fred Liu and Shiza Ranamagar hang Chinese and Korean language posters at stores last month in Flushing, N.Y.
MinKwon census outreach staff Fred Liu and Shiza Ranamagar hang Chinese and Korean language posters at stores last month in Flushing, N.Y.MinKwon Center for Community Action

Census tract 849 is the sliver of Queens, New York, where Chuck Park and others from the MinKwon Center for Community Action were to ring doorbells to get people to answer the survey.

Only about half of that tract, which includes many residents of Asian descent, completed their forms the last time the census was done, in 2010. Park, a civic participation manager with the nonprofit, was hoping to change that.

They would deliver quick messages in Mandarin, Spanish and English about the importance of the congressionally mandated headcount, explaining that it’s used to decide how billions of dollars in federal funding are distributed.

Once they got some buy-in, they’d take out their internet-enabled iPads and allow respondents to complete the electronic form on the spot.

“All of that was obviously tossed aside given the COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic,” Park told NBC Asian America.

Measures like sheltering-in-place and social distancing to flatten the curve have forced nonprofits across the country to retool their census outreach strategies.

Among them are members of the Asian Pacific American Complete Count Committee, a citywide coalition of more than a dozen groups targeting hard-to-count census tracts in New York City, the COVID-19 epicenter.

The committee’s efforts extend to parts of Queens, one of the most diverse counties in the country and home to Elmhurst Hospital, which has been on the front lines of treating coronavirus patients.

"Our communities were already at risk for low response rates before the crisis,” Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a Queens-based nonprofit co-leading the committee with MinKwon Center, said in an email.

Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau said it’s now planning to give people until Oct. 31 — instead of July 31 — to self-respond to the census online, by phone or by mail. Census workers will follow up from Aug. 11 to Oct. 31 with households that don’t respond. Field operations are slated to resume June 1.

The Trump administration is also seeking congressional legislation to delay delivery of the state population counts used for apportionment, the process of dividing up House seats, according to a statement Monday from Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

That deadline would be moved to April 30, 2021, from Dec. 31, 2020.

The administration also wants to push back the date for giving states data for redistricting from next March to next July, the statement said.

This comes as the COVID-19 health crisis, coupled with the fact that Asian Americans are least likely to fill out the census form, has renewed fears of an undercount.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter Tuesday to the Census Bureau, urging it to pump up paid outreach advertising and address long wait times at census call centers, among other things.

In the tract Park and his organization were to visit, just 1 in 4 people have so far completed the survey.

“We are concerned the count will remain low due to illness in the family, loss of life, loss of income, loss of a job, and fear of losing one's home, which all make over-the-horizon thinking and civic participation ever the more daunting," Seecharran said.

The census, conducted every 10 years, is used to decide the number of seats awarded to states in the House of Representatives, the way representative boundaries are drawn, and how more than $675 billion a year in federal funds is distributed.

It’s also used in determining which states and counties are required to provide voter language assistance according to the Voting Rights Act.

An inaccurate count could affect funding levels for programs like Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as grants and loans for state and local governments, companies and nonprofits.

People living in immigrant-rich neighborhoods like those in Queens are among the ones who could lose out the most.

“I’m not surprised that many of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 also had the lowest response rates in the last census,” Park said. “These are Hispanic and Asian immigrant neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights. The 2010 undercount starved those communities of resources for 10 years.”

Park said most groups doing census outreach are now leaning heavily on phone and text banking. But because the lists of names are culled from public or commercially available databases, people who are undocumented, not registered voters or do not have bank accounts are likely to be missed, Park said.

In the Midwest, which has seen some of the fastest rates of Asian American growth in the last decade, similar efforts are underway.

Sheila Dorsey Vinton, executive director of the Asian Community and Cultural Center, a nonprofit in Lincoln, Nebraska, said they too are phone banking.

Her volunteers and staffers provide the people they reach with different Census Bureau phone numbers they can call to complete the survey in a language other than English.

Lincoln’s self-response rate is around 60 percent, higher than the national average.

“I think that our staff has had a lot of success in getting people to fill out the form,” said Dorsey Vinton, whose organization serves all immigrants and refugees, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Karen people from Myanmar.

But, she added, “I am concerned that we haven't been able to reach everybody.”

In New York City, Park said the MinKwon Center and other organizations involved in census outreach are also trying to engage the community through social media. That includes using KakaoTalk, a Korean-language messaging app; WeChat, for Chinese-language speakers; and WhatsApp, popular among South Asians.

Park said his group also spent more than $10,000 on ads to run in Korean-language newspapers and on radio stations.

Still, outreach workers and volunteers worry that completing the survey could take a back seat to more immediate concerns from COVID-19, like worrying about unemployment and having to put food on the table.

Park said they’re trying to make their messaging more timely by connecting it to the coronavirus health crisis.

“So we're saying things like, the decisions on where to put hospitals and health centers is tied to census responses,” he said.

Indeed, it’s all hands on deck for groups that spent the past few years readying to do in-person outreach — only to have their plans derailed by COVID-19 — as they try to stave off a potential undercount.

“We will continue to work until the last day when people can respond to make sure that our community participates,” said Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit.

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