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Pasquotank: Help needed now for Census in spring

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pasquotank County is starting to prepare for the 2020 Census, and it's asking the community to help make sure all residents are counted, especially the vulnerable and easily overlooked.

Pasquotank officials discussed preparing for Census Day — April 1, 2020 — during county commissioners' finance committee meeting on Monday. Commissioners heard from James Cofield Jr., a regional representative for the NC Complete Count Commission, and Pasquotank's Complete Count Coordinator, Julie Stamper, the county's geographic information systems administrator.

As Cofield told Camden County commissioners earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper formed the Complete Count Commission to help the U.S. Census Bureau count state residents as completely and accurately as possible. The commission is encouraging counties to appoint local coordinators and committees. That's because known, trusted figures in a community are more likely to get people to participate in the Census, Cofield said.

Cofield also reiterated the importance of the Census, which has been conducted once a decade since 1790. It determines representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, where North Carolina is projected to gain a 14th seat due to its rapidly-growing population, he said.

More than that, population counts also factor into many forms of federal and state funding. Every person counted brings $1,623 in federal funding, plus $200 in state funding, Cofield estimated.

Census numbers also factor into business decisions, as new companies may only want to open in communities of a certain size, he noted.

Despite the Census' importance, Cofield reported its participation rate in Pasquotank and statewide was just under 80 percent. “Participation rate” refers to when residents respond to the first Census questionnaire they receive. When someone doesn't respond to that first contact, a Census worker, or enumerator, is supposed to follow up with them in person to ensure they're counted.

However, “Pasquotank does have a lot of populations that are difficult to count,” Stamper said.

Pasquotank has many highly mobile residents, including college students and U.S. Coast Guard service members, plus low-income, rural residents, senior citizens, and migrants who may speak little or no English.

Cofield and Stamper also identified two additional challenges for this year's Census.

For one, Cofield said the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether the Census can ask if someone is a U.S. citizen, and it's expected to rule that it can.

While not arguing for or against asking about U.S. citizenship, Cofield said the question could make some less comfortable participating in the Census.

Additionally, he and Stamper noted this will be the first Census completely primarily online. Residents will receive postcards in the mail that direct them to fill out the Census via a website.

That's a problem for residents who do not have access to the internet, such as the rural poor, or aren't comfortable using computers, such as the elderly.

Residents may request a paper form to mail in, but that's another step and inconvenience for them, Stamper noted.

Cofield noted that, if residents do not respond at all to the Census, workers will try to visit them in person.

To ensure that disadvantaged and easily overlooked residents are counted, Cofield urged Pasquotank to form a Complete Count Committee of local officials and residents. People need to see friendly, familiar faces encouraging them to trust the Census with their information, he explained.

Stamper said she is trying to assemble that committee, or at least get help from throughout the community. Among the organizations she's contacted so far are Elizabeth City State University, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, and the Coast Guard, through Base Elizabeth City Cmdr. Randy Meador.

She also said she's going to reach out to nursing homes, the Chamber of Commerce, faith groups, and other local government offices, such as the Department of Social Services and sheriff's office.

In reaching out to faith groups, as well as the SOULS Feeding Ministry, Stamper said she is hoping to find a way to contact and count the county's homeless population, another hard-to-reach group.

She also asked commissioners' recommendations on how to reach out to the Hispanic and/or migrant communities. Commissioners recommended contacting large farms, or the Pasquotank Center of N.C. Cooperative Extension that works with farmers.

Ideally, the county will facilitate informational meetings and assistance to help people complete the Census, such as through the library, school system, or city-county senior center, Stamper said.

Cofield also said the Census wants to hire its workers locally, so familiar faces are the ones following up with non-responsive households. He noted people may get more information about the Census, including applying for jobs, by visiting the site, census.nc.gov.

Commissioner Cecil Perry also urged Cofield and Stamper to recruit a diverse group of people; some residents may be less likely to respond to someone of a different race, he said.

In a followup interview Tuesday, Stamper welcomed people looking to help with the Census in Pasquotank to contact her, either at 331-2336 or by email at stamperj@co.pasquotank.nc.us.

Stamper acknowledged residents may not want to participate in the Census for one reason or another. However, she reiterated the Census helps bring federal funding to Pasquotank, including Title I funding that helps public schools serving children who live in poverty.

She also noted that the April 1, 2020, Census will not ask about income, one question that people often consider sensitive.

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