Lynne Gross, partnership specialist in eastern Oregon for the U.S. Census Bureau, speaks at a Vale City Council meeting last month. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – About half of the U.S. population has filled out the 2020 Census as of Tuesday. The Census Bureau is trying to get the number to 100% as COVID-19 delays census efforts and already forced the agency to extend the deadline to mid-August.

The pandemic underscores the importance of the decennial headcount, said Patricia Ramos, media specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“It’s for emergencies such as these that we will be planning for the next 10 years,” Ramos said. “The better we know how many people live in a particular place, that will definitely help local, state and federal health authorities for planning.”

With many Americans on lockdown and staying at home, there’s no excuse not to fill it out, Ramos added. 

April 1 – known as Census Day – marked the official beginning of the 2020 headcount. As of Sunday, the national response rate was 48%.

Oregon paced a little ahead of the national average at 51%.

Malheur County lagged behind both the state and national average at 44%.

For months, local groups have worked to ensure everyone gets counted in the county.

The Ontario nonprofit Euvalcree is one of three local organizations that received a United Way grant to become a Census Assistance Center. Euvalcree has reached out to the county’s Latinos in particular. Latinos are among the populations that the Census Bureau considers “hard to count.”

Local leaders are already bracing for an undercount in the 2020 Census. Malheur County residents will not be receiving bilingual questionnaires in the mail and only two Spanish-speaking census takers are expected to be hired in the county.

“The Census is a time to be counted and we are saddened that the U.S. Census Bureau isn’t sending bilingual information to communities that need it,” said Perla Alvarez Lucio, field director with the #WeCountOregonCampaign. “Unfortunately, the concern is not limited to Malheur County but instead affects many of our rural areas in Oregon, and throughout the country really, where there is a strong Spanish/Latino presence.”

Consternation has marked the discussions among local leaders and stakeholders who are alarmed at the prospect of potentially losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal money if not everyone participates in the census. 

“If we under count we’re losing money,” Mayor Mike McLaughlin said at a city council meeting in March. “So we really have to take this by the horns and make sure these populations are getting counted.”

Norma Ramirez, a programs manager who leads the census efforts at Euvalcree, said she’s had quite a few people come in to fill out the questionnaire.

“Word of mouth has been working pretty well,” Ramirez said. She and her colleagues also make sure to plug the census when clients come in to ask about other resources such as the Oregon Health Plan, which is funded in part using census data.

“We give them the details about why it’s important and why it benefits them,” said Ramirez. 

“The biggest question for our community is what race to identify as because Hispanic and Latino is not considered a race,” Ramirez said. “There’s no option that people feel they can identify with; they don’t feel comfortable identifying as white.”

Some people opt for Native American. A blank line in the questionnaire also allows participants to self-identify. Ramirez said many people use that spot to write in their nationality.

Another common question is whether participation is mandatory.

She said encouraging people to fill out the census right away rather than waiting until the agency sends out its enumerators – door knockers – has been helpful in getting many to participate.

To limit person-to-person contact, the Census Bureau won’t resume field operations until the agency has the greenlight from federal health authorities, said Ramos, the agency’s media specialist.

“We are relying very heavily on everybody to do their part and self respond,” she said.

The Census can be completed online at www.2020census.gov.

In Spanish at: 2020cesnus.gov/es.

The questionnaire can also be completed by phone in English: 844-330-2020. And in Spanish: 844-468-2020. Phone lines are open every day from 7am to 2am Eastern Time.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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