Earlier this year, Polk County’s Complete Count Committee established a strategy to promote Census 2020 centered on face-to-face interactions at festivals, churches, ball games, preschool registrations and other community events with giveaways like T-shirts, tote bags, cups and coloring books.
Then the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
“When the pandemic hit and restrictions were put into place, we paused and focused on our own issues and day-to-day responsibilities,” said Rhonda Heuer, executive director of Polk Family Connection, who chairs the Complete Count Committee. “Once the initial upheaval settled, we regrouped and re-imagined our plans. Of course, in hindsight, I wish we had printed our message on hand sanitizer.”
The committee — which includes county and city representatives, public health officials, local media, parents, and leaders from local schools, libraries, and churches — brainstormed new ways to promote the census, particularly in hard-to-reach neighborhoods.
“Making sure the community embraces the census can prove challenging, especially during a pandemic,” said Blair Elrod, Polk County Chamber of Commerce executive director.
“Polk Family Connection was a natural fit to lead the way, as it has already developed strong relationships in the community with a reputation for supporting families. Rhonda Heuer’s drive and experience enabled her to bring the right people to the table to develop strategies, establish goals, and make adjustments as we went along.”
The collaborative shifted census outreach to social media, promoting a video contest to share how #EveryoneCountsinPolk and why the census matters. Partners shared messages on Facebook pages, websites, and outdoor signage.
Census promotion was also incorporated into pandemic relief efforts of local nonprofits and agencies that had closed their doors temporarily but were still providing support to families through scheduled donation pickups and drop offs.
The promotional items intended for big community events were distributed at school meal distribution sites, food banks and the local pregnancy center. One hundred yard signs were placed in hard-to-reach regions, and flyers were posted in polling places during elections.
“Each local government and entity involved had a different demographic in our outreach area. We collaborated so we didn’t duplicate resources,” said Stacey Smith, Rockmart director of community development. “When I look back on the Census 2020 process, what stands out is the kindness from other communities and organizations in our county. A city commissioner from the other side of the county delivered signs to the City of Rockmart during our shutdown. Everyone partnered together.”
As in-person services reopened, the committee promoted the census through the Head Start’s summer reading program and Polk County Health Department’s WIC and immunization programs.
On a bulletin board with a county map, kids placed a pin where they live as a reminder to their parents to “make their mark” by filling out the census.
“In the last few months, we’ve refocused on promoting the ease of completing the census by phone,” said Heuer. “We encourage case managers who are seeing families in person to share the census phone number and get them to call while they wait on services. As one of our city commissioners said, ‘You can complete it before your coffee gets cold.’”
Georgia is currently 49th in the nation for census completion, as 27% of Georgians have still not responded and only 38 of Georgia’s counties are meeting their 2010 rate. The completion rate in Polk County is currently 48.4%, and the Complete Count Committee is determined to reach at least 50% despite an array of barriers.
“We have a high Hispanic population and they, from our discussions, are reluctant to complete anything from the government,” said Heuer. “We also have huge gaps in internet access, so many people don’t have the luxury of completing the census online. Many older residents are isolated and unaware of the critical need for a complete count.”
To address the internet access issue, the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission brought a bus to Rockmart High School for the Rockmart-Cedartown football game on Sept. 11 equipped with 12 computers available for people to complete the census with masks and distancing.
“In this time of outside-the-box thinking in all aspects of our lives, we’ve tried to think about where people are still seeking information, keep plugging, and keep the census on people’s minds at every opportunity,” said Heuer. “Also, in this time of isolation and reduced resource availability, the census takers are a great resource for recognizing issues within homes and neighborhoods.”
People can still complete the census form online at 2020Census.gov or respond over the phone in a preferred language. There’s a TDD number for the deaf and hard of hearing, and forms can still be mailed in.