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Montana Among States To Reopen Census Field Operations

Montanas are being asked to report Census data online or by phone even without receiving a specialized ID code to begin the process.
Montanas are being asked to report Census data online or by phone even without receiving a specialized ID code to begin the process.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that area offices in 13 states will reopen for limited field operations this week, including one in Billings. MTPR reports Montana is one of a few states where the Census count has experienced severe setbacks in light of the pandemic.

The Billings office is one of nearly two dozen census area offices across the country resuming limited operations as shelter in place restrictions ease up. Monday’s announcement of the reopening marks the first move to restart 2020 Census field efforts that were halted in March.Montana is nearly ten points behind the national average for its response rate to the 2020 Census, sitting at just 48.2 percent. That’s far behind where Census organizers thought the state would be by now in the once a decade count.

Mary Craigle is the Research and Information Services Bureau Chief at the Montana Department of Commerce.

"And so the problem for Montana is we're actually second only to Alaska in the number of– percent of households that needed to get their information by dropping it off at the door. Those operations in Montana went on for two days, and then that was all suspended because of COVID-19,” Craigle says.

On the Census Bureau website’s map, Montana stands out in a pale shade of yellow, to indicate the low response numbers the state has seen so far.

Craigle says Montana, like some other largely rural states, depends on Census field operations to get the word out about the count to a large portion of the state.

That work hasn’t happened because of concerns over the coronavirus.

While many people receive a notice of the Census with instructions and a 10 digit code through the mail, nationwide about five percent of households don’t get those instructions until Census employees visit and dropoff paper forms. In Montana, that number is higher: more than 15 percent. This is how Montanans who live on rural routes, have a P.O. Box or who live on tribal reservations predominantly get counted.

The Census Bureau will resume dropping off 2020 Census invitation packets at front doors of households in these areas as part of the phased restart of operations.

In a press release, the bureau said census workers are set to undergo safety training and receive personal protective equipment before they're sent out to hand deliver paper census forms.

Craigle says the importance of making sure no one is missed in this count is more clear now than ever. At least a decade's worth of federal funding and political redistricting is decided by the count, including the amount of relief Montana gets during emergencies like the COVID-19 crisis.

“The dollars that are being sent out in the care package are based on census population numbers. So I mean literally the relief that we are getting depends on how well we do on the census count,” Craigle says.

But even as plans get underway to send workers out to deliver Census forms in person, there are challenges ahead that need to be addressed. For example, most tribal nations in the state are still under lockdown and prohibiting visitors from outside reservations. As of Monday, the Bureau had not announced any revised plans for in person counting in tribal territories.

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