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LYNN — Wednesday marked Census Day, but a chief officer of a local organization that’s helping to coordinate the city’s count is concerned the crippling coronavirus outbreak will lead to a lower response rate.
For each person not counted, communities could miss out on $2,400 worth of federal funding, which could leave cities like Lynn underfunded in areas such as education, transportation, healthcare and emergency services.
Census Day, which is held on April 1 and is the date used to reference where a person lives for the once-a-decade-count, was initially set to be followed by public awareness events by the state aimed at increasing response.
However, Lilian Romero, Lynn Economic Opportunity (LEO) chief program officer, said the continued spread of the coronavirus and restrictions aimed at curbing it have caused the organization to retool its strategy for reaching residents.
Rather than focusing on face-to-face communication, Romero said their public awareness strategy will involve heavily using social media and making phone calls to get the word out about the importance of an accurate census count.
“We have to remember that this is the count that’s going to affect us for the next 10 years,” said Romero. “We all have to help each other to make sure that our neighbors, our families are counted because we all will be feeling the effect of a low response. It will affect all of us.
“That’s the message that I think is important to remind people. It’s everyone that needs to be counted so the city can have its share of resources based on the number of people that are in the city.”
Ten years ago, Lynn had the second-lowest response rate in the state behind Lawrence. Given that history coupled with the coronavirus outbreak paralyzing much of the country, Romero said she would not be surprised if the city had a lower response rate.
To combat that, Romero said one of the large-scale decisions has been to partner with the city’s school district on the effort to target non-English speaking families, who traditionally have a low response rate because of the language barrier.
Romero said LEO delivered books related to the census to the school department this week, which will be distributed to families. The books, which are designed for a third grade reading level, are written in Spanish and the organization has books written in Arabic that will be distributed as well, she said.
One of the challenges is that non-English speaking families in Lynn are more apt to respond to the census with face-to-face interactions, which is nearly impossible at the moment due to virus restrictions, Romero said.
Another challenge is that undocumented immigrants may be fearful of reporting themselves even though they are protected by federal laws that prohibit disclosing census information.
“(The census) does not ask whether someone is a citizen or not,” said Romero. “It’s where they are at that point in time. If they are in Lynn, they need to be counted regardless of where their origin is.”
It’s not just Lynn that could be feeling the pinch.
The virus’ spread has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to mid-April, when the hiring process would be ramping up for up to 500,000 temporary census takers.
The bureau has also delayed the start of counts for the homeless and people living in group quarters like college dorms and nursing homes, and has pushed back the deadline for wrapping up the head count from the end of July to mid-August. The Census bureau is required by federal statute to send the president the counts by Dec. 31.
Romero said the organization wanted to have census takers out in the community as early as possible, but the plan is now to have people start to knock on doors in May to check in with families who haven’t responded.
“COVID-19 is putting a lot of things on hold,” said Romero. “(We’re) hiring people, but we can’t get people fingerprinted because everything is closed. We’re still heavily concentrating on the census all the way up until May.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.