Lack of communication complicates 2020 census in Nome
The 2020 census is well underway despite concerns about COVID-19, but the process in Nome and the region has been plagued by confusion and miscommunication. The first round of form distributions came to an unexpected end on July 6, well before everyone had received their copy, and while a second round seems to be in the works, many important details remain unknown.
Danielle Slingsby and Sue Steinacher were the only two Nomeites hired as census workers, known as “enumerators,” in Nome for the first round. They applied as early as February but didn’t hear anything until May. They received boxes in the mail with bags, forms and laptop computers, and after 20 hours of online training they were assigned blocks of downtown Nome to canvass in the “Update Leave” phase of the census, which involved updating the census map from 10 years ago with new construction and leaving census packets at people’s doors.
As soon as they started, though, they got sudden news from their supervisor in Juneau that they would have to finish by July 6, just three weeks after they completed the training. Steinacher could only commit 10 hours a week and Slingsby works as an Outreach Coordinator for Kawerak, so getting the whole city done in three weeks was just impossible.
Steinacher estimated that they only finished counting about half the city. “Nobody could tell us what was going to happen if we didn’t get this completed,” she said. They were told to repack all the unused bags and forms into boxes and mail them back. Their supervisor had no more information on what happens next than they did, and his supervisor, based in Anchorage, was overworked and overwhelmed, according to Steinacher. “Communication on this has been terrible,” she said.
Many people filled out the census online or over the phone, which the Census Bureau is strongly encouraging this year in the face of the pandemic. But Slingsby and Steinacher received no information on who had already completed the census remotely and who had not, so they found themselves dropping off packets to people who didn’t need them. While this is not necessarily a problem, it only led to more confusion about what houses they should be visiting.
The next step is theoretically to get enumerators to knock on doors of people who didn’t fill out the census the first time around in a “Nonresponse Followup (NRFU)” operation. Slingsby has been told that the NRFU enumerators will come from outside Nome, quarantine upon arrival, and then visit the unvisited houses as well as the people who received a census packet but did not fill it out. But she has received no details on when that might happen and is doubtful that there is the time and coordination to pull it off.
Slingsby has been actively involved in the census for months, helping organize a census worker to come to a Kawerak job fair and get more people involved. She described issues starting in the beginning, when employees of the Census Bureau would call applicants once, go to voicemail, and then never follow up. Various application and training materials also required a personal computer and internet connection, which excluded some applicants. In the end, with only two enumerators working part time, the project was understaffed from the start.
She also blamed the repeated confusion on poor communication between the many different layers and departments that collectively operate the census. Higher ups had a schedule in mind from the start, she said, but because it was not shared with people on the ground, they did not understand what their timeframe was. “By the time everyone knew what they needed to know, it was too late,” she said.
She also tried to figure out how people in communities outside the city limits like Dexter and Banner Creek would be counted and was told by one person that they had received packets in the mail, but by others that they had not. She is still unsure how or if people living outside of Nome will be counted, unless they take the initiative to complete the census online or over the phone.
Both enumerators also expressed concern for residents of the villages, who make up some of the region’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Steinacher said that two enumerators had made it to Savoonga right before the pandemic, but left immediately after it started, and for a while neither of them could get an answer about how the villages would be counted. Slingsby was eventually told that census workers had reached out to tribal leaders and received proxy counts from them, but she still expressed concern that newborn babies, college students and elders receiving medical treatment outside their villages were not being counted. This was especially concerning, she said, since census results influence federal funding for an entire decade, and an undercounted village is likely to receive less support than it needs.
The pandemic caused more concerns about the census protocol. Ordinarily, enumerators in the NRFU stage would go door to door, speaking with people face-to-face to make sure every house was counted. Just recently, Slingsby heard that going door to door is still the plan, despite the risk of infection. But, both Slingsby and Steinacher emphasized, no one has been able to give them clear answers.
As the days tick by and the census’ next steps remains obscure, Slingsby becomes more and more concerned. “I don’t have high hopes that Nome will be accurately counted,” she said. But she also said that anything could happen between now and the end of October, when the counting portion of the census is set to be finished. Steinacher echoed her sentiment: “Its objective is very important. Its implementation has been fragmented and baffling,” she said. “But hopefully they will continue to implement stages and get all the information fully captured.”
Residents of Nome and outlying communities can complete the census any time online at www.2020census.gov or over the phone at (844) 330-2020.