The COVID-19 pandemic may mean an even lower census count in New Mexico this year — which could lead to the loss of hundreds of millions in federal funding over a decade.
In 2010, New Mexico was the second most undercounted state in the nation, according to outreach campaign NM Counts 2020.
In a statement released on March 12, the Census Bureau said depending on future COVID-19 recommendations from public health officials, they may need to delay or discontinue nonresponse follow-up visits in particular communities but will attempt to adapt their operations to ensure they get a complete and accurate count.
The Census Bureau said they are "carefully monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation and will follow the guidance of federal, state and local health authorities."
"What is unknown right now is whether the threat of the coronavirus will give some potential census workers pause about whether they want to do this job," Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former staff director of the U.S. House Census Oversight Subcommittee, said in an interview with Wired magazine.
Lowenthal expressed concern about the virus' potential to dissuade the mass of workers needed to execute the census.
"That's scary, because the out-and-about-count is no mop-up operation," Lowenthal said. "The Census Bureau expects just 60.5% of the population to respond online, by phone or by mail. It needs half a million enumerators to track down 40% of the American public — more than 130 million people."
Census takers may be hesitant to go door-to-door because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) COVID-19 precautions include limiting interactions with other people and social distancing.
"Based on what is currently known about this virus and similar coronaviruses, spread from person-to-person happens most frequently among close contacts (within about 6 feet) ... Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials," according to the CDC's Coronavirus Disease 2019 webpage.
Nancy López, a UNM sociology professor and co-chair of UNM's 2020 Census Complete Count Committee, said if the virus results in the cancellation of in-person events like UNM's census block party, the Complete County Committee will move efforts online.
"The UNM 2020 Census Committee (is) planning to continue mobilizing, even if this is done virtually and by other mass media," López said. "For example, if our face-to-face block party on the census is not able to take place on April 1 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., we will do a virtual block party via webcast, hopefully with music and prizes."
The door-to-door operation to count New Mexico's hard-to-count populations may also be impacted.
New Mexico contains a high number of counties that are labeled as "hard-to-count" by the Census Bureau. In these counties, 50% or fewer households respond to the census by mail. Households that don't respond to the census have historically been counted in-person by census employees.
According to NM Voices for Children, "New Mexico has always been a hard-to-count state. Many residents live in hard-to-reach rural areas, speak languages other than English, move frequently and worry about privacy or distrust the government. New Mexico is (also) home to many populations that are often under-counted, including: Hispanics, Native Americans, immigrants and people living in poverty, in rural areas or without internet access."
Even though the new online response option for the 2020 census is being promoted as a way to fill in the gaps, many hard-to-count households struggle to access the internet.
The American Community Survey estimated that as late as 2018, "24.1% of New Mexico's households had either no internet subscription or dial-up only," and in rural and other hard-to-count areas, the rate is even higher.
The Census Bureau said as of right now, census takers are still planning "to conduct the 'Nonresponse Followup' operation in a handful of communities beginning as early as April 9, and across the country on May 13," but those plans may change depending on the impact and spread of the novel coronavirus.
Lissa Knudsen is a public health beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen
Alex McCausland is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @alexkmccausland