CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:50 p.m. on Thursday, July 23, to state that April 1 is a reference date for the census and not a deadline as previously reported. The normal deadline to respond, July 31, has been adjusted to Oct. 31 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
More than four months past the April 1 reference date for the U.S. Census, much of the Chattanooga region lags behind the response rate for the census compared with the last census in 2010.
As the census bureau prepares to send thousands of enumerators door to door to count area residents, officials are appealing to Americans to fill out census forms online or via mail to help ensure the most accurate population count to help apportion money and determine congressional representation.
With the normal July 31 deadline now extended to Oct. 31 due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, more than a third of the residents in most area counties — and over half of those in five of the 15 counties around Chattanooga — have yet to fill out census forms either online or via mail.
In the previous census, in 2010, when most responses were done only by mail through the U.S. Post Office and not online, 67.1% of residents responded on their own without having to be contacted by census bureau enumerators.
Despite the lower rate of participation so far, bureau spokeswoman June Iljana said Tennessee "is on track and on target for what we expected the census turnout to be" at this time of the year.
"We knew it wouldn't be comparable to any previous census because this is the first time people can respond online and the first time we've taken a census during a pandemic like we are now in," Iljana said. "It's an unusual year, so we're having to try to accommodate for a lot of different factors. We encourage everyone to respond right now, right away."
People may respond to the census online at www. 2020census.gov through the end of October, when the census bureau plans to wrap up its count for 2020.
In most of the country, response rates to the census have been lowest in inner-city neighborhoods and in rural areas — both communities where there is likely to be less online usage or familiarity with the census.
The census bureau is preparing to begin deploying census takers to go door to door for households that didn't respond to compile the census data, which is required under the U.S. Constitution every 10 years.
Census response so far
* 62.3% - U.S. average
* 61.7% - Tennessee
* 59.9% - Alabama
* 58.1% - Georgia
* Catoosa, Georgia, 66%
* Franklin - 65% - Franklin
* Bradley - 64.8%
* Hamilton - 63.3%
* Walker, Georgia - 56.4%
* McMinn - 55.2%
* Sequatchie - 54.1%
* Whitfield, Georgia - 53.3%
* Rhea - 51.5%
* Dade, Georgia - 50.4%
* Meigs - 49.5%
* Chattanooga, Georgia - 49.4%
* Murray, Georgia - 49.4%
* Bledsoe - 44.8%
* Polk - 42.7%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census self response rates for each county through July 20, 2020
The enumerators are scheduled to begin knocking on doors and gathering census data in person in mid-August, depending upon whether such visits are allowed in local communities under restrictions to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Currently, 59 counties in Tennessee have limits on door-to-door visits that could delay, or block, such counting, Iljana said.
Iljana said census bureau is still hiring census takers for up to eight weeks of scheduled work to gather information from households that did not respond.
Assistant Regional Census Manager Marilyn Stephens said that while those who do not respond will be contacted in person, voluntary responses tend to be more accurate.
"It doesn't matter what your age is," she said. "It doesn't matter what your ethnicity or your race is. It doesn't matter what your citizenship status is, whether you are documented or undocumented, everyone counts."
Joe Legge, Walker County public relations director and chair of the local Complete Count Committee, said he tells people that if they fail to respond to the census, they are leaving money for their community on the table.
"For every person that is counted in Walker County, there is $2,300 that flows back into our community every single year," he said. "So if someone doesn't fill out the census and turn it in, they're actually costing our community millions of dollars over the course of the next decade."
Catoosa County ranked the highest among Chattanooga area counties for the response rate. John Pless, the county's public information officer, said he is proud of how many residents have filled out the census, but he encourages even more to do so on their own as the county continues its own census initiatives including a digital campaign and events.
Pless said he believes population numbers have risen in Catoosa since the last census, and accurately reflecting that in the census responses will likely bring millions more in funding and have a bearing on political boundaries.
"That is a lot of money that goes to our infrastructure, bridges, health care facilities, schools and other vital programs," he said of how the census affects the community's long-term needs.
Neighboring Whitfield County falls well behind state and national averages with 53% of households having responded to the census, a number that Whitfield County Commission chair Lynn Laughter said worries her.
"It's very important to have an accurate count," Laughter said, "because of all that funding and services we provide for all the people in Whitfield County."
Laughter said she believes that while the county has tried to raise awareness about the confidentiality of census records, the county's large Hispanic population — some of whom may be undocumented — may still be fearful of responding.
All of the area census offices are now fully open as they continue to count the U.S. population in the midst of the pandemic, but the deadline to fill out the census has been pushed back to Oct. 31 due to COVID-19.
Census statistics help determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated by state, local, and federal lawmakers every year for the next decade.
Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.
Contact Tierra Hayes at email@example.com
Mobile census response sites
The U.S. Bureau of Census has scheduled mobile questionnaire assistance events to help residents fill out their census forms for 2020 in two area counties where participation so far has been lower than average:
* Bledsoe County Senior Center, 148 Frazier Street in Pikeville from 10 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
* Meigs County Ministries, 18364 State Highway 58 North in Decatur July 24th from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.