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Census efforts wrap up in Maui County

53.3 percent response rate recorded with officials awaiting door-to-door results

Census tracts across Maui County are shown on a map. Census officials said responses have historically been lower in rural areas such as East Maui (Tract 301), which posted a 24.9 percent self-response rate. U.S. Census Bureau graphics

Maui County surpassed its 2010 census response rate by about 4 percentage points, though local census officials are hoping to get more from the door-to-door counting efforts that wrap up this week.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported a self-response rate of 53.3 percent in Maui County as of Wednesday, third-best in the state. Final totals from door-to-door efforts are pending.

“I think we had the right kind of partners trying to reach out to groups of the population,” said Bill Snipes, community liaison for the census in Maui County. “I’m sure there’s always more that we could’ve done, but on the balance, I’m pleased.”

The last weeks of the census were embroiled in controversy after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could end field operations early. Census officials and civil rights groups had expressed concerns that stopping efforts too early would leave hard-to-reach communities short-counted.

Taken every 10 years, the census aims to count households across the country, and every response nets about $2,500 more in federal funding distributed to the state.

A map shows the rate of self-response to the 2020 U.S. census. At 53.3 percent, Maui County finished third among counties.

About 99 million U.S. households, or 67 percent, self-responded. Hawaii ranked 37th with a 63.1 percent self-response rate, according the Census Bureau.

Honolulu County recorded the highest self-response rate at 68.9 percent, Kauai County was second with 54.2 percent, Hawaii County fell in fourth with 49.7 percent and Kalawao County on Molokai was last at 21 percent.

Maui County’s 53.3 percent self-response rate surpassed the 49 percent it recorded in 2010. Parts of Wailuku and Kahului reached as high as 77 and 78 percent this year, while some areas Upcountry also surpassed 70 percent.

Response rates in rural and hard-to-reach communities have historically been low, and that didn’t change in the pandemic, which delayed the delivery of census materials to some residents in Molokai, Lanai and East Maui. However, once the materials finally reached Lanai and local organizations worked to spread the word, response rates shot up by more than 30 percentage points. Lanai finished with a self-response rate of 57.8 percent, a slight increase over its 2010 rate of 56.4 percent.

Molokai, meanwhile, which is split into two different tracts (not counting Kalawao County) had a 25.1 percent response rate from Kualapuu to the west end — down from 36.5 percent in 2010 — and a 34.2 percent from Kaunakakai to the east end — down from 49.3 percent in 2010.

Snipes said he’s not sure why numbers went down on the island. He said the bureau sent workers to a gas station and snack shop on Molokai and set up a telephone bank run by the Council on Native Hawaiian Advancement to call people who hadn’t responded yet. They also brought on workers to help with text messaging and email outreach.

“I think text messaging turned out to be pretty effective, but it was relatively late in the process, so it’d be nice to have that done earlier and hire people . . . specifically for that function,” he said.

Snipes added that it’s also important “to have homegrown folks knocking on the door,” which they tried to do.

Field workers were supposed to go out to homes in mid-March, but then the pandemic hit, said Ron Larsen, former census field manager for Maui. They didn’t start door-to-door efforts until mid-July.

Larsen said that many census workers tend to be older, and that some dropped out over concerns with the virus and the long, hot hours spent canvassing homes. However, Maui island ended up with a sizable group of workers — over 400, from an available pool of about 1,800 — thanks in part to the pandemic.

“We did have some problems prior to the pandemic, but then when people started losing their jobs, we had plenty of people,” said Larsen, who recruited from December to June. “So the pandemic actually kind of helped us. If you think about it, people didn’t have jobs, they didn’t know when they were going to work again.”

And, with pay at $24 an hour and the ability to tailor schedules, the job was appealing to some single parents and students.

Larsen said that all enumerators — the workers who go door-to-door — had to wear masks and keep their distance while visiting homes. However, he said it wasn’t a problem because the questionnaire wasn’t very long and enumerators were able to talk to people from a distance and input their answers into an iPhone.

Many census workers spent six hours or more visiting homes; some were bitten by dogs, one fell through a porch and another was chased by a cow in Hana.

Larsen said he was proud of the efforts by local census workers. He didn’t think the Supreme Court decision hindered their efforts and pointed out that the deadline wasn’t shortened by much. They worked to reach all communities — taking written questionnaires to homes in Hana for those without internet and spending a day with 100 workers going to homeless sites across the island, for example. He said it’s impossible to count everyone and that some people understandably harbor distrust of the government.

Now, federal officials will spend the coming months putting together the data to be presented Dec. 31. Snipes said the timeline for getting census-related funds to Hawaii “depends in part on who is in the administration at the Commerce Department, and in the White House, for that matter, come Jan. 20.”

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

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