Census restarts Vermont push as public response lags

A sign seeks Vermont support for the 2020 census. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The U.S. Census Bureau, which temporarily stopped home delivery of paperwork out of concern for the Covid-19 pandemic, has restarted its counting efforts in Vermont, where low participation threatens to cut the state’s future share of federal funding.

Census data collected every 10 years is used for determining electoral districts and how government divides up $1.5 trillion in annual grants. But the Green Mountain State’s current response rate of 49.7% — the country’s fifth lowest, just above Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wyoming — is nearly 10 points behind the national average.

“We know we have a ways to go,” says Jeff Behler, director of the census’ regional office.

The census mails paperwork to physical addresses in 95% of the country and hand-delivers information to the remaining 5% where a majority of households use post office boxes.

Census workers started to hand-deliver information to the latter group March 15, only to suspend their efforts three days later because of the coronavirus.

“That’s part of the reason Vermont’s response rate is low,” Behler says. “The proportion of hand delivery in Vermont is much higher than in other states. A lot of people haven’t received anything from us.”

The state’s largest city of Burlington and surrounding Chittenden County, where most people receive mail at their physical location, has a higher response rate of 68%. In contrast, the southern Vermont hub town of Brattleboro and surrounding Windham County, where 40% of households will receive their census paperwork through hand delivery, has a lower response rate of 34.6%.

Census workers, set to distribute information outside the doors of 61,100 Vermont households, hope more people will respond online, by phone or on paper.

“We like to say the census is safe, easy and important,” Behler says.

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Federal Title 13 calls for census workers to protect confidentiality and prohibits the disclosure of private identifying information and its use against respondents by any government agency or court.

“We can never release information,” Behler says, “and people’s data can never be used against them.”

In contrast, not responding can have costly consequences for Vermont, which receives some $2.5 billion annually based on its population of, as counted a decade ago, 622,433 people.

“This is money for health care, education, roads and infrastructure, Medicare and Medicaid, community development block grants — a whole host of things,” Behler says.

Provided by John Adams of VCGI

Estimates since the last census project Vermont’s population is flat or falling. Gov. Phil Scott, devoting much of his 2020 State of the State Address to the subject, identified Vermont’s overall declining numbers as his “biggest concern.”

“If we don’t break this cycle,” Scott said, “our institutions, including state and local government, won’t be able to afford what they currently do, or what they would like to do in the future, because costs will continue to rise much faster than our tax base can sustain.”

That makes a full census figure more vital than ever.

“These numbers are going to be used for the next 10 years,” Behler says, “so it’s important that we count everyone.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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