Once every ten years, the Census Bureau sets out to count everyone living in the U.S. that year, regardless of housing or citizenship status. The data allows cities and counties to apply for federal grants and programs to serve people living in the community. But in South Florida, not everyone knows what the Census is or what it does, and that's causing a problem for local governments.
Florida ranks 32nd in the nation in Census response, and Miami-Dade County ranks 31st out of 67 counties in the state. Whereas the national average of people filling out the Census is 63 percent, only 60 percent of Florida's population has responded, and only 58 percent of people in Miami-Dade have responded to date, according to the Census website.
For comparison, St. Johns and Duval counties have response rates of 68 and 63 percent, respectively.
The Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Center at Florida International University (FIU) has research that could explain Miami's low response rate. In 2019, the center surveyed people living in downtown Miami, Overtown, Homestead, Opa-locka, and elsewhere in the county and released a study predicting roadblocks for the 2020 Census.
Researchers found that many of those surveyed didn't know what the Census was or what it was for. Others didn't know how to complete it or didn't trust the government with their information.
Helen Roldan, a research and outreach coordinator with the FIU Metropolitan Center, tells New Times there are many reasons why people in South Florida aren't responding, but a big one is mistrust in the government.
"There's a lack of trust with the rhetoric against undocumented communities, and it's affected not just the undocumented but others as well," Roldan says.
News about a possible citizenship question on the Census floated around last year, leaving many immigrants afraid that the government would use their responses against them, and that they could possibly be deported. While the move to add such a question was blocked, it left a bad taste in many people's mouths about responding to the Census.
"People think if others may be targeted based on their information, it might happen to them, too," Roldan says. "They are hesitant to fill out the form based on that rhetoric."
Immigrant groups tend to come to the U.S. with an already shaky relationship with the government, according to Marilyn Stephens, regional assistant for the Census Bureau's Atlanta region, which includes Florida.
"When you have a large minority community like in Miami and Broward, that's a challenge," says Stephens. "Immigrant communities are traditionally considered hard to count due to a mistrust of government. And the Census doesn't mean the same thing in other countries."
Stephens made it clear that personal Census data is not shared with ICE, the IRS, the FBI, or any other government agency. Individual responses are kept under lock and key, and a government employee could face jail time if they share any data collected.
Another possible reason for Miami's low response rate? A digital divide among ethnic groups.
With the coronavirus pumping the brakes on most face-to-face outreach about the Census, governments and nonprofit groups have put a lot of energy into digital marketing this year. Online outreach, while helpful, leaves behind people who don't have internet access.
"We uncovered when we were doing focus groups in Homestead that there are parts where people live in trailer homes or sheds that are makeshift habitations, and there are people getting left out," Roldan says.
According to data collected by the Metropolitan Center, 15 percent of Black people in the Miami metro area don't have internet access, compared with the nationwide average of 9 percent. For the Hispanic population, 11 percent in the metro area lack internet access, versus 9 percent nationally.
The gap is much smaller for the white population, of which 5 percent is without internet in Miami, on par with the nationwide rate.
According to Roldan, that divide makes groups that are already hard to count even harder to reach during the pandemic, which might contribute to a low response rate this year.
Those factors are part of the reason the Census Bureau is relying on local governments to reach their residents and explain why the Census is important.
"They are taking it really seriously. They want to get the largest possible count they can get," Stephens says. She mentioned as one example the City of Hialeah, which has a 64 percent response rate, slightly higher than the national average.
Stephens says cities and counties want as many people counted as possible so they can get appropriate funding for services including emergency management, education, affordable housing, and homeless assistance.
Fire departments, for instance, need Census data to know how many people live in an area so they can know how many residents to evacuate during a hurricane, according to Stephens.
The Census also determines the apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. States with more people get more representation in Congress, and that data comes from the Census.
With the pandemic ravaging the local economy, South Florida will need as much federal funding it can get, and a lot of those dollars are distributed by population size.
"All the resources are being depleted, so all these local governments are depending on these dollars," Stephens says.
Census workers will start going door to door on August 11 and will be taking safety precautions as they reach out to households that haven't responded. Stephens says survey-takers will have masks and hand sanitizer and will stand six feet away from respondents while interviewing them. They will be wearing photo ID and official Census Bureau insignia so people can know for sure who they're talking to.
Stephens says it's important that families include every member of the household, including children, to get an accurate count. She says it does not matter what a person's living situation or citizenship status is.
"Anyone who was breathing on U.S. soil on April 1, 2020, should respond," she says.
Households can still respond to the Census before getting a knock on their doors. The questionnaire is available online in 13 languages, including Spanish and Creole. You can also complete it over the phone or by mail.