Census: Hawaii now third in response rate after very slow start

  • Percentage of Big Island households by census tract returning their census forms without prompting from census workers. (U.S. Census Bureau)

After a very slow start that saw few people returning their census questionnaires, Hawaii has picked up the pace to the point that it now has the third-highest rate in the nation for census forms completed.

As of Thursday, 99% of Hawaii households had returned their forms, behind first-place Idaho, with 99.8% and second-place West Virginia with 99.7%. The lowest state, Alabama, had returned 86.3% of its forms.

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Those results came about despite a delay in getting census workers on the phones and out on the street because of plan revamps to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, in an Aug. 3 press release, pledged to reach a similar response rate as in previous censuses.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” he said.

Collection of surveys is scheduled to end Sept. 30, and the agency has stepped up the pace of work.

“We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” Dillingham said. “As part of our revised plan, we will conduct additional training sessions and provide awards to enumerators in recognition of those who maximize hours worked. … Under this plan, the Census Bureau intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities.”

When it came to the number of households who returned their forms without prompting from census workers, however, the state didn’t do so well. Hawaii came in 36th in the nation, with only 62.4% self-responding, or filling out their forms and returning them by mail or online.

And no major Hawaii island had a lower self-response rate than the Big Island, according to census records. Fewer than half of Big Island households, 49%, returned their forms without prompting, compared to 68.2% on Oahu, 53.6% on Kauai and 52.6% on Maui.

The lowest response came from Census Tract 217.08 near Waikoloa, which had a 25.4% return rate. Lower Puna had the next two lowest self-response rates, of 26.8% and 27.7%. The highest response came from Hilo Census Tract 208.01, with 76.2% of households returning their forms without prompting.

Sharlette Poe, Hawaii partnership specialist for the census, said her office concentrated on finding key partners in the various communities that make up the state to help spread the word about the importance of the decennial count.

That “really closed the gap,” between people who sent in their forms without prompting and those who filled them out later, she said.

“Trust, just like relationships, take a little bit of time,” Poe said Friday during a Facebook Live discussion with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and others.

“There’s nothing that has such a direct effect,” as having representatives known to the community to explain the process, Hirono said.

“It is shortchanging ourselves in the amount of money we should get from the federal government for participating,” Hirono said of low responses.

Data on individual households is held confidential for 72 years. But the aggregated data is used every day by government, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

For example, the 2010 census data showed the population distribution that earned the Big Island an additional seat in the state Senate. The numbers were also used to draw local boundaries giving Puna an extra seat on the County Council.

The numbers are used to help determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal and state funds. That means more money for hospitals, highways stadiums and school lunch programs.

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Non-profit organizations use census numbers to estimate the number of potential volunteers in communities across the nation. Census information helps health providers predict the spread of disease through communities with children or elderly people. When floods,tornadoes or earthquakes hit, the census tells rescuers how many people will need their help.

Although individual records are held confidential for 72 years, individuals can still request a certificate from past censuses that can be used as proof to establish age, residence or relationship, information that could help people qualify for a pension, establish citizenship or obtain an inheritance.

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