Nonprofits encourage census response

Petaluma groups raise awareness for count seen as important for funding|

Nonprofits constantly have an eye on funding, where it is coming from, how much is coming in. So, a nonprofit like Petaluma People Services Center is in a good position to advocate for completing the census, which has a huge impact on federal funding for social service programs as well as representation in elections.

“It is so extremely important that every everybody gets counted,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center. “It all links back to how we, as a community, get the dollars we deserve.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Petaluma has a 75.3% self-response rate so far, meaning that ¾ of all of the estimated households have voluntarily filled out the census survey online or through the mail. This ranks above Sonoma County’s 64.4% response rate and California’s 62.1% response rate.

But is still means that about 25% of Petaluma has not yet been counted ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline, which has already been extended from July 31 because of the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has made the once-in-a-decade count even more challenging, limiting in person census visits, Hempel said.

“Census walkers are not able to knock on doors,” she said. “We need more people to be aware. You always want a 100% response rate. We were doing a great job but then we plateaued off.”

Census Bureau Field offices, including the Santa Rosa office that serves a region stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, were supposed to ramp up training and deployment March 1, but the North Bay office finally opened May 25 because of the outbreak.

One stage, which involves census takers dropping questionnaires at residences that don’t have traditional addresses, was scheduled to last from March 15 to April 17; it, too, began in late May. Joshua Green, media specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, said 5,648 households were identified for this operation in Sonoma County, and that 87% have been served to this point.

The Census Bureau has yet to release the timeline for collecting data from homeless populations.

The final major phase of census gathering, and the most intensive, calls for a small army of “enumerators” go house to house, apartment to apartment, knocking on doors in a final bid to interview as many holdouts as possible. Originally scheduled for May 13 through July 31, this phase is now set to begin Aug. 11 and wrap up Oct. 31.

There is opportunity here for people who have been laid off during the pandemic or seen their work hours reduced. The Census Bureau would like 1,000 or more new applicants for census taking jobs in Sonoma County, at a rate of $21 an hour, Green said. He wasn’t sure how many would end up being hired.

“We won’t know that until we know the total self-response number,” he said. “It would just be a waste of money if we were to hire people, and then they don’t have work to do.”

Hempel said her organization “got a couple of pennies” to help spread awareness of the census on social media and other platforms. She said her group passed our fliers at recent Black Live Matter rallies. Before the outbreak, outreach workers met with Petaluma mothers groups and preschool teachers to make sure that infants and toddlers, who are often mistakenly excluded, were counted.

The city of Petaluma has also been sharing updates and encouraging census responses. Local governments rely on federal funding for many programs from road paving to education to senior care, and funds are often distributed based on population size.

“When we are undercounted, the funding doesn’t match the need we serve,” Hempel said.

One big question is whether it will be safe for census takers to interact with residents in August, when the final phase is set to begin.

Workers leaving forms in front of homes right now are wearing proper PPE, Green said, but going door to door and conducting interviews throughout the day is a different story.

“I can’t answer you about what conditions will be like on Aug. 11,” Green said. “I don’t think any human can answer that. I’m highly confident that if conditions remain as they are now, we can go forward.”

Until then, Hempel and her army of advocates will make sure people know how important it is to take the census.

“We want to make sure everybody takes the 2 to 3 minutes to fill out the census,” she said. “That’s what we’re passionate about.”

(Press Democrat Staff Writer Phil Barber contributed to this report. Contact Matt Brown at

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