Editor’s note: “The Hawaii Variable” is a new data column from Civil Beat reporter Yoohyun Jung, taking a closer look at important numbers in Hawaii and the stories they tell.

This has been a strange year to say the least, with a global pandemic inflicting varying levels of disruptions — ranging from mildly inconvenient to catastrophic — on personal, professional and governmental affairs everywhere.

One of the governmental disruptions here in the U.S. included the fact that 2020 is a decennial census year, when the federal government needs to make a headcount of people in the country and collect data about them. The process of gathering that data usually involves a lot of in-person follow up by government workers.

You can see why that can’t work out during a pandemic, with social distancing and all. And it hasn’t worked out so well for Hawaii either. We’re No. 34 in self-response rates, with neighbor island counties faring a lot worse than Honolulu.

Hawaii trails behind the national average right now for Census 2020 participation. Screenshot/U.S. Census Bureau

Many important federal decisions are made based on that census data, including how many U.S. congressional seats a state would get, and how much funding is allocated to certain programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and school lunches.

If that doesn’t mean anything, how about this: in fiscal year 2015, $311.8 billion in Medical Assistance and $71 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance were allocated to the two programs based on census data.

“It comes down to money, power and representation,” says Carlie Liddell, a research statistician at the Hawaii State Data Center, which is part of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. “If you’re not counted, the money doesn’t come to Hawaii anymore.” 

In Hawaii, accurate counting has particular significance because Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, people with limited English proficiency, low-income households and young children, who tend to make up a large portion of Hawaii’s population, also tend to be the most undercounted.

Months Behind

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the U.S. Census Bureau to dramatically adjust the timeframes for the constitutionally mandated survey’s key operations, which include rolling out the questionnaires, following up with in-person visits, and hand-delivering packets to those who live in areas where mail can’t be delivered.

U.S. Census Sample Mail Form 2020
Hawaii organizations want to assure that as many as possible are counted in the 2020 Census. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Federal officials said in a media briefing this week that most regional census operations will resume this month and workers will be provided with personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizers.

However, everything is about three months behind.

The self-response rates have not been so great compared with 2010, state and federal officials say, although this year there is an added option to complete the entire questionnaire online.

Nationally, as of Friday afternoon, more than 91.9 million, or 62.1% of the people in the U.S. have completed the survey, the data showed, and 49.6% have done so by using the internet option.

Hawaii was not a front runner, or even close to it. The state ranked No. 34, with 58.4% of residents having responded to the survey by Thursday. Of the counties, Honolulu had the highest self-response rate, at 64.3%, while all other counties were below 50%.

It has historically been the case that neighboring islands had a lower response rate because they tended to have a higher portion of households that fall under what’s known as the “update leave” operation category, said Liddell of the state data center.

That means households that “may not receive mail at their home’s physical location, such as small towns where mail is only delivered to post office boxes,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is also a high rate of vacant households where people don’t live full-time on neighbor islands, Liddell said. Counties with high vacancy rates, such as Hawaii County, tend to show low census self-response rates.

The data certainly reflects her statement — Hawaii County ranked fourth out of five counties (tiny Kalawao County on the north coast of Molokai is officially a county in Hawaii) with a 44.7% self-response rate, compared with Honolulu’s 64.3%.

Another reason for low response rates could be complex family situations, Liddell said. Children could be living with grandparents, or splitting time between parents. In 2010, children under the age of 5 were among the most undercounted populations in the decennial census.

The Census Bureau has an interactive tool for viewing participation rates. Some census tracts in Hawaii County have very low response rates, which could be impacted by household vacancies and how rural an area is. Screenshot/U.S. Census Bureau

Even at 64.3%, though, Honolulu ranked No. 862 out of all the counties across the nation.

So which county was No. 1? Ozaukee County in Wisconsin, at 82.1%. And what state was No. 1? Minnesota, at 71.6%.

In general, COVID-19 has forced the state government, nonprofit partners and community groups working to boost census participation rates to shift their focus entirely, Liddell said.

“Before COVID, we were hoping to be at health fairs, farmers markets to promote the Census,” she said. “That has changed entirely. All of it is now online. So everyone, across the United States and locally, a lot of the promotion has shifted to online events.”

Census outreach efforts come from a variety of sources, Liddell said. They’re not always sponsored by the government.

Some outreach groups are community-based or even religious, like the Hawaii Children’s Action Network or the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. Those groups work with Census Bureau employees, most of whom are based on Oahu but travel to neighboring islands, to boost participation.

Tim Olson, associate director of field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau, said on a federal level, money is being invested for a “high level of paid advertising” in low response areas, though he did not specify how much.

Local government and nonprofit groups are engaging in advertising campaigns to encourage participation. Submitted: Kauai County

Liddell said county governments, nonprofits, partnership specialists and other partners also engage in their own campaigns on and offline to encourage people to respond to the questionnaire.

To target those communities and areas with particularly low response rates, she said Census Bureau employees and community groups engage in targeted discussions and campaigns to figure out why they may not be responding and how they can be engaged.

“When you don’t fill out that census, that’s money that flies away to another community,” she said.

These days, if you’re driving around Kauai, you may find a sign or two that says, “No Miss Da Census!”

That’s part of Kauai county’s effort to encourage residents to participate more. And Liddell says the state has been especially focused on making sure the hard-to-count population, including minorities, elderly, foreign-born and those with limited English-speaking abilities, are accurately counted.

It all comes back to money, power and representation. And it’s not just Liddell saying that.

“It’s critically important to the development of your community,” said Al Fontenot, associate director for Decennial Census Programs at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Oh hey, it turns out you can still fill it out online. And if you keep putting it off, this NPR story says you may find a masked Census worker knocking on your door as soon as July 30.

Help the Hawaii Variable explore more data about Hawaii and its islands: 

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