U.S. Census Bureau

As the census — critical to funding distribution for schools, hospitals and roads, for example — draws to a close amid a pandemic, officials are getting creative in the push to urge Louisiana residents to fill out the paperwork.

As of late last week, Louisiana’s 2020 Census response rate was at 58.6%, well below the national average of 65.5%.

Officials have held press conferences and posted on social media urging residents toward census participation, particularly because Louisiana looked very different a decade ago when the census was last taken.

In a virtual town hall on the census, state Rep. Jason Hughes, a Democrat from New Orleans, said in 2010 the state was still reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, meaning a lot of long-time residents weren’t yet back in their home.

“This is really the first time we have a chance to get a more accurate count, and we know our population has rebounded,” he said.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome likened the need to complete the census to needing to vote.

“When you don’t exercise your right to vote, then you minimize the impact you can have,” she said. “When you don’t complete the census form, you impact your future for the next 10 years.”

She said there were losses in 2010 due to inaccurate representation — like the state having lost a congressional seat — and at such an important time in history, it’s important to get every dollar possible to the state.

“I can’t specifically say everything we lost in 2010 but I can certainly say that now the challenges are greater than ever before,” Broome said. “We’re in a post-COVID environment, in one where equity and inclusion issues around race are some of the dominant things for us in Louisiana and in Baton Rouge specifically. … I would say our federal funds are part of the equation towards the solution.”

While the number of representatives in Congress is often the most prominent speaking point on the census’ importance, it also determines dollars going to schools and roads, for example.

“It’s more than political representation, it’s also connected to health care, your hospitals, your food security, your children, so making sure folks know all the ways the census is connected is important,” said Janea Jamison, with the Power Coalition of Equity and Justice, who moderated the virtual panel.

Some examples of programs funded with federal dollars determined by census data include the Office of Social Services that helps residents with rent and mortgage assistance or utility bills; Head Start programs; EmployBR, which is a program designed to improve the public workforce system for those with barriers to employment; money for homeless shelters and their needs; and neighborhood improvement grants.

In the region’s smaller areas, like the Village of French Settlement, for example, the census data could change the municipality’s designation from a village to a town if it records about 100 more residents than it had 10 years ago. That could mean increasing the number of representatives on the board of aldermen and redistricting.

Where usually census-takers would be door-knocking in communities but can’t because of coronavirus concerns, officials have had to get creative to engage residents.

The city-parish has started working with faith-based groups and agencies like the state Department of Health to push residents to fill out census forms. Across the state, some radio stations are holding "call-a-thon" type events where listeners can call in and fill out their information over the phone.

The Urban League of Louisiana is partnering with the Bayou Classic to drive its RV through neighborhoods in Baton Rouge and New Orleans covered in Census promotion as a visual reminder to complete the information.

An often-cited barrier to completion is concern about immigration or other personal data being used against those who complete the census. For example if they have an outstanding warrant, they fear being arrested because they’ve entered their address and other information.

“We have to let people know that their information won’t be used against them, we have to get people to understand that not filling out the census undermines the accurate population counts in political representation and funding. … It’s too crucial to our future (not to complete it),” Broome said.

The census is open until Sept. 30, and can be completed online at census.gov or by calling 844-330-2020.

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.