Only about half of Cincinnati residents have responded to the 2020 Census. The city trails Hamilton County, which has an estimated 61% return rate, and the state of Ohio, which has an average of 64%. The national average is around 59%. The head of Cincinnati's city planning department says the difference doesn't come as a huge surprise.
Director Katherine Keough-Jurs says large metropolitan areas tend to fall behind other areas when the census is taken every 10 years. "We do have a number of hard-to-count folks who are in our city and in our county," she says. Those include people who rent instead of own their homes, people with a language barrier, those with a physical or mental disability, and children.
"We're not sure why that is. It could sometimes be because maybe there's a grandparent who's caring for their grandchildren, and they think, 'Well, I'm just caring for my grandchildren temporarily, so I'm not going to count them. But really they should be counted in whatever household they're living in on April 1," she says.
The coronavirus pandemic isn't helping the Cincinnati lag. Keough-Jurs says colleges and universities closed down around Census Day, sending thousands of students home, where they may have been counted instead of where they went to school.
Typically, Keough-Jurs says by mid-May, Census Bureau enumerators would be visiting households that hadn't responded to the initial contact. "Where you would normally see enumerators out on the street, around this time, you're not going to see that until maybe June, which means they'll extend that process a little bit longer."
This is the first time the census can be answered online. Keough-Jurs says that may be an issue as well. "To some people that's really convenient. That makes it a factor for them to respond more quickly. For other people, they might be more hesitant to do that," she says. "That paper copy coming in their mailbox may be just the spark that's needed to respond and send it back in."
Keough-Jurs says a lack of access to the internet may also play a part in low return rates.
An undercount can have severe consequences. Districting for congressional seats, as well as statehouse and senate seats, is based on census results. Federal funding is distributed, in part, by the head count. Keough-Jurs says that means if the 2010 Census missed 23% of the population, Hamilton County lost out on $3.4 billion in federal funding in the last 10 years.
There is a group whose goal is to encourage census participation. The local "complete count committee" has about 200 individuals and organizations and started meeting to develop strategies in the fall of 2019. Keough-Jurs says at the center of that was the idea of making connections and building relationships.
"Someone's not going to fill out their census form because I tell them to. Or because someone who they don't know is telling them to. They are going to fill out their census form because somebody they know and trust in their own life lets them know that it's important, it's safe, and it's easy," Keough-Jurs says.
She says members of the committee are still working. She says they planned in-person events to encourages participation, but because of the pandemic, have shifted to video conferencing, like a lot of other people.