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Rural area census forms are delayed by pandemic

County urges residents to fill out forms, which can bring millions in funding to the islands

The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges for 2020 census officials, including a decrease in face-to-face contact and delays in delivering materials to rural communities, a Maui County official said Wednesday.

“The federal bureau is working hard on that to solve that,” Bill Snipes, a community liaison for the census in the mayor’s office, said during a news conference. “It’s particularly a problem on Molokai, Lanai and in Hana. We’re trying to reach out to all of our residents, but particularly the people in those three of our communities.”

Countywide, 45.1 percent of households have filled out the census, including 16 percent on Lanai and about 7 percent on Molokai, Snipes said after the news conference. Maui County’s response rate is second highest among the counties but below the statewide response rate of 55 percent and the national rate of 60.2 percent. As of Tuesday, Hawaii was tied with Texas and Arkansas at 40th overall in terms of response rate, per the Census Bureau website.

During the last census in 2010, Maui County’s response rate was 61.4 percent, Snipes said. Self-response rates in Maui County were about 49 percent, and door-to-door efforts helped add 12.4 percent.

Snipes said it’s “hard to say” how the pandemic has impacted responses and why they vary by county. Minnesota, for example, has the highest response rate in the country at 70.1 percent, perhaps because the state stands to lose a congressional seat if it can’t show it has the population. Hawaii’s population growth has been “relatively stagnant,” with a bit of an uptick mostly due to immigrants offsetting those who move to the Mainland, Snipes said.

He added that response rates may be lower in rural communities because they may not have received all the information yet. The U.S. Census Bureau won’t send materials to P.O. boxes, so these addresses have to first be connected to physical locations.

“Once all of that information is collected, if people haven’t otherwise responded through the website, by phone or by mail, then they’ll have a tap on the door probably beginning in mid-August,” Snipes said.

Snipes said they’ve also been putting out the word through TV, radio, social media, newspapers, meetings with local community groups and even inserts in county water customer bills. Organizations like Maui Economic Opportunity are trying to set up phone banks in Hana, Lanai and Molokai to reach out to residents.

“All of this is because for every response we get, it means $2,000 gets allocated from the federal government through the state of Hawaii per person per year for 10 years until the next census,” Snipes explained. “So it’s a lot of money. Put it another way, for every 1 percent of nonresponse, the state loses $37 million. So we don’t want to leave that kind of money on the table.”

Funding from the federal government would help offset the impacts of COVID-19 and cover infrastructure projects, schools, public facilities and equipment, he and Mayor Michael Victorino said.

Snipes said knocking on doors is “going to be tricky,” because it’s unclear what the rules on social distancing will be by August or September. However, workers will likely try to maintain distance “to the maximum extent possible” and could use masks and covers for tablets or other equipment used to help people fill out the questionnaire. He added that census officials are still looking for people willing to help with door-to-door efforts.

Residents who have received mailers with their census ID number can visit 2020census.gov or call (844) 330-2020. Those who don’t have an ID number can still respond by visiting the website, clicking “respond,” then “start questionnaire,” then indicate that they don’t have a census ID number.

For more information, call the county at 270-7855 or Snipes directly at 270-5548 or email william.snipes@mauicounty.gov.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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