With snowballing emergencies and tensions experienced in the past few years, the U.S. Census Bureau is stressing the importance for all Puerto Rico residents to complete the 2020 Census, which will be pivotal in the process of allocating recovery funds and other federal assistance for the island.
Jeff Behler, director of the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York region—which encompasses the island—, affirmed that the data collected from this decennial form provides accurate, reliable information about Puerto Rico’s demographics, including which areas are facing more setbacks in the recovery process.
“When you think about the data that it will produce, this is like taking a snapshot of all of Puerto Rico,” he told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
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While the Bureau is not responsible for allocating or disbursing federal funds, its findings could be used as a groundwork to determine aid distribution.
“What we do is that we provide the data so that if a federal agency is going to give out funding to Puerto Rico, they need to know, not only the populations, but the age distribution of that population in the individual communities across Puerto Rico, and that’s what the Census can provide. Whether it’s decision making or whether it is funding, it is being made using the best data possible, and the way to do that is for households to complete their 2020 Census,” Behler explained.
Between 2017 and the current year, Puerto Rico has endured the Zika virus; two hurricanes; mass protests that culminated with high-profile resignations in the public sector, amply covered in U.S. media; ongoing seismic activities in the southwestern region; unreliable public infrastructure; and now, a global health emergency named COVID-19. All these factors and the island’s multibillion-dollar public debt have contributed to a stagnant economy and a drastic population decline.
The 2010 Census found that there were 3.7 million residents on the island. From 2010 to 2019, that number dropped by roughly 600,000 people, and experts estimate that 300,000 more people will emigrate from Puerto Rico.
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“The Census is the one time every decade where we’re not projecting what the population is; we’re not using estimates. It’s the one time we are counting everyone who lives across Puerto Rico, regardless of where they live, regardless of their status,” Behler said.
Behler emphasized that all residents must be included in the Census to ensure that whatever decisions are made by either elected politicians or business owners are using "the best data possible, and the way to do that is for every household across Puerto Rico to fill out their 2020 Census."
Reaching Vulnerable Communities
As restrictions are lifted in Puerto Rico, the Bureau intends to send staff to knock on residents’ doors. Although residents should be able to receive the information via mail, the federal office wants to ensure that vulnerable communities, particularly those who live in remote areas, have the opportunity to complete the Census with staff assistance.
“We plan to bring technology to communities to allow them to fill out the census online if maybe they don’t have the ability to do so. So, we’ll be looking for those areas; we’ll have staff there; we can provide support and guide them through filling them out online, and we’ll actually provide them with a tablet that they can use to fill out their 2020 Census,” Behler stated.
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THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked how the Bureau would identify which communities would require tech assistance in this process.
“What we’ll do, it’s a really cool tool if you haven’t seen it—it’s available at 2020census.gov. We have a mapper available, basically, where you can see how self response is doing in different geographies… We’ll be able to see over time how those responses are increasing. In those areas that it’s doing very well; that’s awesome. [It allows us to see if] there’s something that we can do to replicate it, maybe in an area that is not doing well,” Behler said.
“So, we’re going to be looking at real-time data that’s also available to the public to make some of those decisions to ensure that if the Census Bureau is putting resources on the ground, we’re gonna go to the areas that truly need them,” he added.
Posponed Deadline Under Talks
Under law, the day in which the Bureau provides its report before the Executive is December 31st, while the data collection operation ends in late July. Behler informed that the agency submitted a new proposed schedule that is pending Congressional approval.
If ratified, the process to complete the Census would be extended until October and the entity’s deadline to submit its findings would be extended to April 30, 2021. This would allow the Bureau to go through its plan to personally visit residents at their homes starting August.
Presently, the Bureau’s three offices across Puerto Rico and its local headquarters in Hato Rey are operating at 20 to 25 percent capacity. The entity’s goal is to keep 100 percent of its staff working, so those who cannot return to the office are given work to do remotely. As COVID-19 concerns are subdued, it will carry on with its largest operation in Puerto Rico.
“Our current plan is on August 11 is when we start our largest operation in the [Bureau], and that’s when we start to knock on doors of every household that has yet to respond to the Census,” he said, adding that this operation would go on until the end of October.
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But before activating this procedure, the Bureau, in collaboration with its partnership staff throughout the island, will be focused on reminding people “how important [completing the Census] is for Puerto Rico in the next 10 years” and encouraging residents to do so. This, in a bid to increase the self-response rate as much as possible before August 11.
Residents should already start receiving the package that contains the paper version of the Census with a postage-paid envelope, as well as a unique 12-digit number to use as ID when visiting the website.
“Our first goal in Puerto Rico is to get these packages delivered, and that’s what we’re focusing on for the next three, four or five weeks—to ensure that we get the right addresses to deliver these packages,” Behler explained. So far, the agency has visited 2 percent of households across the island.
Residents will be able to complete the Census by visiting www.my2020census.gov, by mailing the print documentation included in the package, waiting for a visit by a Bureau staff member, or by calling (844) 426-2020.
Despite offering various alternatives, the Bureau is nor concerned with repeat information muddying its data.
“Let’s say that they went online and just keyed in their address, maybe last month, and then they get that package that we’re going to be hand delivering—they can still go online, use that 12-digit number, and at the end of the Census, we are only going to accept one of those forms. We have the ability to un-duplicate when there’s multiple forms where people may have been counted twice,” Behler said.