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MARICOPA — While data collection for the 2020 U.S. Census is well underway, issues with the response rate left city officials scratching their heads last week.

So far, around 58.7% of Arizona households have responded to the 2020 Census, while the national average is about 61.2%. Pinal County is currently reporting a 54% response rate, and most communities in Maricopa are reporting at similar rates.

However, there is one major outlier. Tract 17.12, which covers everything east of White and Parker Road and north of Bowlin Road, including Rancho Mirage and Tortosa communities, is only reporting at around 28% — vastly lower than the rest of the city’s numbers.

This confused Census data collectors, who had ramped up outreach efforts in the area to help get a handle on the low percentage, seemingly to no avail.

“I’ve been banging my head over to why this is so bad,” said Dale Wiebusch, intergovernmental affairs director for Maricopa. “This is the first Census ever capable of being done online, and the notices or the Census went out in the middle of March, so we should have a higher rate out there.”

But Wiebusch had an epiphany last week and his hunch was confirmed after a quick call to his senior planner.

“What we do as a city is we send regular updates to the Census Bureau with new addresses. So they have all these addresses, but we don’t have people in those addresses,” Wiebusch said laughing.

The city had registered unoccupied plots of land with the Census Bureau for new addresses, but most of those lots remain empty. For Rancho Mirage, the number of unoccupied spaces was nearly 50%, which explains the feedback Wiebusch and his team had been getting from the community.

“We did a door hanging thing where we put a bunch of city staffers, the mayor, Councilwoman (Julia) Gusse, Vice Mayor (Nancy) Smith went out and hung door hangers on people’s doorknobs,” Wiebusch said. “They all said, everybody they ran into said, ‘Oh no, don’t bother I already filled mine out.’”

Wiebusch was more than pleased that the issue was resolved, because it means the data are not a reflection on his community outreach, which has proven effective in other parts of the city. The Heritage District, a historically low performing area for data collection, has risen 10 percentage points this year.

“If I take a look at the Heritage District, which has not historically performed well in the Census, we have two people that live in that district on the committee. We’ve looked at points, where we were a decade ago, that neighborhood hasn’t changed,” Wiebusch said. “The efforts yielded results … We developed materials in English and Spanish, we used the high school graphic arts classes to design posters for us in both English and Spanish and put them up on bus stops.”

Much of the work for Wiebusch and his Complete Count Committee centers around community outreach for the Census, and they’ve had more time this year to work on it than normal with the extension of the deadline from April 1 to Oct. 31.

The committee holds a unique position, Wiebusch explains, as they help bridge the gap between community members and the government.

“The first thing that we did and continue to do is find that trusted community member,” Wiebusch said. “Let’s just make up a couple of names here, Bob and Sally. Bob does not trust the federal government with this data, Sally does. Sally is on my Complete Count Committee. Sally has all the information. Sally and Bob go to church together. Sally talks to Bob — not Dale,” he joked.

Wiebusch explained that, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled against a citizenship question being added to the 2020 Census, the damage had already been done to a certain degree.

“It took a long time to assure people that that was not going to be there,” Wiebusch said. “Maybe they hadn’t heard about the decision by the court and they were afraid. Getting out correct information and (figuring out), how are we going to get people to trust that the government is not going to use our data against us?”

But through careful outreach and thoughtful community members, Wiebusch has achieved numbers he can be proud of so far. However, he and his team won’t have an idea of the final response percentages until mid-August, after they complete door-to-door promotion.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.

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