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Absence of door-to-door surveys acting as speedbump for census

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NORTH METRO ATLANTA — There is around $675 billion in federal funds that will be doled out based on the 2020 census, and every region wants its fair share of the pie. But getting an accurate portion of the funds depends on census figures, which is contingent on every member of a city or county participating. 

For the first time, residents can now submit the census online, but the traditional fieldwork and door-to-door surveying has been on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Normally, this is the point where census workers would begin going door-to-door for the households who haven’t responded,” City of Milton spokeswoman Jennifer Hartwig said. “We are now, more than ever, relying on the citizens to respond themselves.”

Hartwig said those who have already responded have done it online, but now is the time to reach the “second layer” of respondents.

“We are trying to reach people who either aren’t comfortable online, they may be older, or maybe English isn’t their first language,” she said.

Milton Principal Planner Michele McIntosh-Ross said the city had planned to hold a “Census Day” event on April 1 to serve as another push for residents to complete the survey, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19.

Cities are turning to social media to spur more responses, but that will still not reach everyone.

“Not everyone is active on social media or pays attention to the city messages on our website,” McIntosh-Ross said.

She said residents can play an active role in ensuring their neighbors complete the survey since census figures impact both parties.

“You can go into your phone, find five or 10 neighbors and call them up,” McIntosh Ross said. “Ask how are they doing, and did you fill out the census. We are also asking our [City Council] members and staff to check on neighbors and friends and have them go ahead and complete it.”

The deadline to respond has been extended to Oct. 31, but McIntosh-Ross said people should complete the census as soon as possible.

“All the efforts to try and get people to respond is timely and costly, so whatever we can do to get people to respond sooner, the better,” she said.

Residents can respond online, over the phone or by mail.

The strong push by cities to have a robust response rate is not just for an accurate count of residents. It also determines where billions of federal dollars land.

Cities lose out on about $1,600 a year per person who does not participate in the census.

“Those funds go to trails, roadways, things people are using on an everyday basis,” Hartwig said. “We estimate Milton has a population of about 38,000 to 40,000 people, so if you are talking about 10 years at $1,600 per person, that’s a lot of funds.”

In 2010, Johns Creek led all North Fulton cities with an 80 percent response rate ahead of Milton (77 percent), Alpharetta (76 percent) and Roswell (70 percent). Forsyth County had a 77 percent response rate.

McIntosh-Ross said census figures directly impact local option sales tax dollars and other county or state funding sources.

“That amount of money is divided up among Fulton cities bases on population,” she said. “GDOT funding, Atlanta Regional Commission funds, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, all these agencies use that census number. There is a whole economy worth of things it affects.”

The importance is not just monetary, though.

“It also decides how many representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Hartwig said. “It also tells us where to open schools, how many schools we need and where we need hospitals.” Hartwig said. “It is not just about how many people live here, there are real, tangible reason every city or community needs participation.”

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