Molokai Lags in Critical Census Response
By Catherine Cluett Pactol
Participating in the U.S. census is an important and mandatory task every 10 years that’s currently underway and informs billions of dollars in funding in Hawaii. But Molokai households are falling behind in responding to several simple questions, with only about 27 percent of residents responding thus far, according to census officials.
“That’s far below the current national average of 63.1 percent, and the Hawaii average of 59.4 percent,” said Caroline Witherspoon of Becker Communications on behalf of Hawaii Counts, an organization aimed at educating residents about the census.
“…There’s so much money involved [so] we’re trying to make sure that our islands get their fair share,” said Bill Snipes, Community Liaison for the Office of the Mayor focusing on the census. “It’s about $3.75 billion for Hawaii over 10 years.”
In the western half of Molokai, about 350 households had filled out the census form on their own as of Aug. 7. That means about 1,160 homes still need to visited by a census taker to count everyone else in-person, according to current census data. In East Molokai, about 740 households have self-completed the census. That means about 1,580 homes need to be visited in person by a census taker unless they complete it on their own.
The census consists of several basic questions about who lives in your household.
Guided by census data, the federal government allocates about $6.75 billion to states and communities across the country each year. For Hawaii, programs like MEO, SNAP, Head Start, public housing, Medicare and infrastructure projects are all funded based on census participation, according to Witherspoon.
More participation basically means more money, census officials urge.
“Census data helps the government gauge where to send federal funds, which includes money for roads, schools and hospitals as well as essential programs,” said Witherspoon. “For every one percent of the state’s population that’s not counted, the state loses about $37 million each year for the next 10 years.”
Snipes said response to the 2020 census could impact funding for certain groups specifically, such as Native Hawaiians.
“[Not responding means] in particular, depriving groups like Native Hawaiians of funding because for the first time, you’re able to identify your ethnicity and race. Now you can be very specific and list up to eight races and ethnicities,” Snipes explained.
Witherspoon said this will include “Native Hawaiian health clinics and the free and reduced price lunch program at public schools, among many other programs.”
Allocations for funding is generally decided by the governor, said Snipes, and though Molokai would still receive a portion regardless of census participation, more money might be given to an island with a higher response rate.
“Molokai’s share would be that much greater if more people participate,” he said.
This year, the census has faced many challenges, including delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the federal government recently moving up the census deadline by one month, which is now Sept. 30 but was initially set for the end of October.
“One of the biggest challenges facing response rates on Molokai is that many households use P.O. boxes to receive their mail,” said Witherspoon. “In these cases, census questionnaires are hand-delivered to their physical address in a special operation called ‘Update Leave,’ however, these operations were delayed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Snipes said the Update Leave phase — with census packets being left at residents’ doors with no face to face interaction — ended on July 30. Now, census takers, called “enumerators,” are conducting in-person interviews with those who have not responded on their own.
Less than a dozen Molokai residents are employed as enumerators, according to Snipes.
“We worked to make sure people knocking on doors were homegrown, otherwise those doors might not open,” he said.
Still, there have been some concerns about census takers on Molokai expressed on social media. Some residents reported that enumerators were not wearing masks, while others said they didn’t properly identify themselves.
Snipes said enumerators carry census ID badges with their photos, an electronic tablet with Dept. of Commerce watermark to log interview information, and carry Census Bureau bags with COVID-related protective gear.
Snipes said if census takers aren’t wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or if there are any concerns about confirming their identification, residents can call (213) 314-6500, which is the Pacific census office in Los Angeles.
Enumerators are instructed to be as thorough as possible and if a property appears vacant, they will “go back up to a half dozen times just to confirm that it is, in fact, vacant,” said Snipes.
Ultimately, if residents are uncomfortable with census takers coming to their home, Snipes urged completion of the census online, an option available for the first time this year, at 2020census.gov. It allows you to answer the questions in the privacy of your own home, he said, and is considered the preferred method.
It can also be completed over the phone at 1-844-330-2020, or by mail, completing the packet left at your door if you didn’t complete the census by other methods.
“It’s not too late to help the island, the county and the state because this is a process that only occurs every 10 years and involves a great deal of money that would benefit our keiki, our kupuna and community at large,” said Snipes.