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State Census response rate still poor as new deadline looms

CHARLESTON — Despite ads, promotions and even please to get West Virginia residents to fill out the U.S. Census questionnaire, the state’s response rate remains one of the lowest in the nation, and time is running out for people to respond.

Members of West Virginia’s Complete Count Committee held a weekly conference call Tuesday to receive updates on Census efforts to get response numbers up.

According to the U.S. Census, West Virginia’s response rate for returning mail-in questionnaires or responding online was 55 percent as of Monday, while the U.S. self-response rate was 63.4 percent.

West Virginia ranked 49th in the country for its self-response rate, followed by New Mexico, Alaska and Puerto Rico. So far, only 540,000 households have responded to Census surveys.

The top five counties in West Virginia for response rates are Jefferson County with 71.3 percent, Wood County with 69.2 percent, Berkeley County with 68.2 percent, Hancock County with 67.1 percent and Pleasants County with 76.7 percent.

The bottom five counties with the worst response rates are all either in southern West Virginia or the Potomac Highlands. They are Logan County with 32.3 percent, Pendleton County with 30.9 percent, Mingo County with 27.8 percent, Pocahontas County with 24.7 percent and McDowell County with 23.7 percent.

“We’re making progress,” said Dreama Pritt, a partnership and media specialist for the U.S. Census in West Virginia.

So far, all the responses have been self-responses from households either returning a mail-in Census questionnaire or responding online. Starting this week, the Census will be sending Census takers to nearly 59 million households across the country who have not responded to the Census. These Census takers will go door-to-door while also practicing social distancing and hygiene guidelines to keep residents and takers safe, including the use of face masks.

“America has answered the call and most households responded to the census online, by phone or by mail,” said Dr. Steven Dillingham director of the Census Bureau, in a statement Tuesday. “To ensure a complete and accurate count, we must now go door to door to count all of the households we have not heard back from.”

“The Census Bureau is very concerned about the safety of the public and our employees,” Pritt said. “Census takers are trained to follow the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) recommendations in addition to local guidelines. All enumerators will be wearing face masks, maintaining 6 feet of social distance, practicing good hand hygiene, and they do not enter homes. As much as possible, they will be conducting interviews outside.”

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in June, four in 10 adults who said they have not taken the Census said they would be unwilling to open the door if a Census taker stops by their home. Many who said they would not open the door were of minority communities. Of the 4,708 people surveyed, 76 percent said they or someone in their household had already responded to the survey.

The census has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. The U.S. Constitution requires the census to determine how people are living in the United States and participation is required by law. The Census has a statutory deadline to complete the survey by Dec. 31. The end of data collection was moved to the end of October due to the complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but last week the Census set a new data collection deadline of Wednesday, Sept. 30 in order to process data in time for the December statutory deadline.

Joseph DiBartolomeo, city manager for Weirton and chairman of the Complete Count Commission, said it would be important in the final 50 days before the Sept. 30 deadline for local community leaders to help spread the word about how important completing the Census survey is when it comes to federal funding and resources.

“I think sometimes the individual approach, or if you do it by community, then you have people who are influential in the community who can reach out to certain populations,” DiBartolomeo said. “I think we’ve got to handle both, not just the technology or social media stuff, but actual direct response.”

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