An event that only happens once every decade has run head-on into the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Just as the 2020 Census was getting under way in March, the virus hit the United States, bringing with it the COVID-19 disease that has shut down many normal activities.
The U.S. Census Bureau sent out information to households across the nation on how people could respond to the census in a number of ways — online at 2020census.gov, by phone at 844-330-2020, or by mail if you haven’t already responded online or by phone. Paper questionnaires were mailed in April.
In the meantime, Complete Count Committees were formed in communities across New Mexico — one of the hardest states in the union to count — including in Valencia County.
Initially, the Census Bureau extended the deadline for the count to Oct. 30, but earlier this month it announced the count would be finalized by Sept. 30.
While the bureau extended the time to do field data collection beyond the April 1 deadline, Congress did not alter the Dec. 31 deadline for completion of the census count.
Nancy Gonzales, the county’s community development director, said the county along with the village of Los Lunas, which are the two local agencies heading up the local committee, have changed gears, promoting the census as effectively as they can.
Due to the public health orders banning large public gatherings, Gonzales said the council has focused more on an online presence.
“We have been doing drawings for prizes on the county’s Facebook page (Valencia County Admin and Government) to encourage people to participate,” Gonzales said.
Using funding provided by the Census Bureau and distributed to local committees by the state, Gonzales said the group has bought thousands of face masks printed with the census, county and municipal logos and delivered them to local businesses.
“We’ve ordered shirts with the census logo for employees and to hand out to the public. We’ve donated water bottles to local day cares, gotten reusable grocery bags that we are giving out at food drives and taking to the libraries for people picking up books,” she said. “We are just trying to get products out there as a reminder to people to participate in the census.”
Even before the pandemic hit, the Census Bureau was strongly encouraging people to “self report,” either online or by phone or mail.
As of Sunday, Aug. 9, the most recent information on the Census Bureau’s website, 58.4 percent of the approximate 76,600 people living in Valencia County have self reported.
Census enumerators will begin going door to door in the county starting this week, Gonzales said.
“People may be hesitant to do that so it remains to be seen how well that works out,” she said.
The census count for a state determines much of the federal funding that comes its way, she said.
“Even if Valencia County has a good response, and the state doesn’t, it can still be a problem,” the director said.
Funding for things like roads, school and senior meal programs, and housing assistance are based on local population numbers, Gonzales said.
“Businesses look at census data to see of it will benefit them to set up shop in an area,” she said. “The census also determines our congressional representation; if we want more votes in Washington, we have to have an accurate count in New Mexico.”
Population also determines districts for elected officials, such as state representatives and senators, county commissioners, school boards and city councils.
“It will be another 10 years before we do this again to make sure we have accurate representation,” Gonzales said. “This shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
According to the self-response information on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, as of this week, the Valencia County response rate was 58.4 percent, putting us fourth out of the 33 counties in the state, behind Los Alamos, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, with response rates of 81.6, 66.1 and 63.8 percent, respectively.
Online responses are at 40.3 percent for Valencia County, with the statewide rate only slightly better at 40.8.
As a whole, Valencia County’s participation rate in the 2010 Census was below the national rate of 74 percent, with a 65 percent response rate. That was up one point from the 2000 census.
The Census Bureau also breaks down and ranks response rates by municipality.
Response rates and ranks for municipalities are:
No. 1: Bosque Farms, 75.6 percent (63.5 percent online)
No. 3: Rio Communities, 70.5 percent (29.5 percent online)
No. 7: Los Lunas, 65.7 percent (56.7 percent online)
No. 12: Peralta, 59.7 percent (51.6 percent online)
No. 26: Belen, 52.8 percent (21.9 percent online)
Bosque Farms had a response rate of 78 percent in the last two census counts, and in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Belen’s response rates were 59 and 69 percent, respectively,
Los Lunas was at 67 percent in 2000 and 66 in 2010.
In the 2010 census, Peralta had a 76 percent response rate.
Neither Peralta or Rio Communities were incorporated during the 2000 census.
In 2000, Peralta was a Census Designated Place and received its first official census count 10 years ago. This year will be the first official count for Rio Communities.
So far nationwide, 93.6 million households — 63.3 percent — have responded to the census, with 50.6 percent of them being done online.
The national response rate for 2010 was 65 percent, one point higher than the previously decennial census.
New Mexico is ranked 50th, with a response of 53.5 percent, behind Alaska at 50 percent and Puerto Rico at 28.8 percent. Minnesota takes the top spot with 72.5 percent response so far this year.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.