Low rural census response not due (entirely) to lack of broadband coverage, county says

Census response results compared with broadband coverage in Charles County

Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck, which will benefit from a $3 million state grant to provide wireless broadband coverage, are also the lowest responding areas in Charles County for the 2020 census, but county officials say that the lack of broadband coverage in both places is only one of the reasons.

“We had anticipated all along that lack of broadband … especially in those rural areas, would be an issue, especially since this is the first online census,” Amy Blessinger, a planner with the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management and chair of the county’s Census 2020 Complete Count Committee told TLR. “[In] some of those low-response rural areas, do you see … somewhat of a gap, a larger gap between the total internet response rate and then the total response rate. But I also didn’t really see a … huge correlation there.”

“So I feel like even though there is a lack of broadband, that can be overcome,” Blessinger said.

Blessinger noted that the census committee has also seen pockets of low response in northern parts of the county, where broadband coverage is more extensive.

The more pressing concern, Blessinger said, was that many people in rural Charles County use P.O. boxes rather than home mail delivery — and since the U.S. Census Bureau does not mail questionnaires to P.O. boxes, those residents will not receive official census questionnaires from the federal government.

Census data provide planners and developers with a wealth of information that they can use to identify demographic and socioeconomic trends that, in turn, affect everything from the placement of schools and subdivisions to capital improvement priorities in the county’s annual budget.

The latest census response rates for Charles County, released on Thursday, show that only 53% of Cobb Neck residents and 53.5% of Nanjemoy residents have completed and submitted their census questionnaires. Overall, the county has a 66.8% response rate so far, 3% higher than the state average.

Charles County’s stated goal is to reach a response rate of at least 85%. To accomplish that, the county has launched a massive outreach campaign on social media that has resulted in one of the highest response rates among the 24 member jurisdictions of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Tina Kozloski, a project manager in the county’s media services division who is managing the communications and marketing for the county’s census effort, said that the overall response rate to date — which has reached above 75% in the county’s urban areas — indicates the county’s efforts have been successful.

“We are exactly where I thought we would be from a marketing standpoint, better if you consider that we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Kozloski told TLR. “For our hard-to-count areas, I feel that we are better than expected.”

Kozloski believes that publishing the latest response rates on the county’s Facebook page every week has spurred friendly competition among residents who want to boost their community’s results.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined many of the county’s other outreach strategies, including visits to senior centers, churches, and community centers and booths at public events. As a result, social media went from being one of many channels to one of the main channels, Kozloski said.

“Following COVID, we were able to move to a more social media presence by increasing our activity and getting our committee members to share on their social media outlets as well, acting as influencers,” Kozloski said. “We are targeting our Facebook postings and also utilizing the Nextdoor social media app to really push the message.”

In addition, Kozloski’s team have come up with innovative new messaging strategies such as mailing handouts to food banks in the low-response areas, sending stickers to restaurants that they can include with food deliveries, vinyl banners, and e-newsletters.

Blessinger said that the U.S. Census Bureau plans to begin door-to-door census counts in August. People who have already submitted their completed questionnaires by that time will not be visited by a census counter, which might appeal to people who are concerned about the risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Earlier this month, the Charles County Government announced that the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development had awarded a $2.9 million grant to Think Big Networks, LLC, to provide so-called “last mile” wireless broadband services to Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck. The county will provide $2.6 million in matching funds. The county expects work on the broadband infrastructure project to begin this summer and to be completed within three years.

In addition to submitting completed census questionnaires by mail, residents can complete the census online at www.my2020census.gov and by phone.