Census faces distrust, language barriers and a new deadline

Census faces distrust, language barriers and a new deadline
Accomack County has erected a bilingual billboard on U.S. Route 13 urging people to complete the census. (Source: Cara Burton via Virginia Mercury)

About 68 percent of Virginians have complied — the eighth-highest response rate among the states. But the statewide average masks vast differences among localities. In the Northern Virginia cities of Falls Church and Fairfax, 80 percent of the residents have filled out the census; in Accomack County, it’s just 35 percent.

Tangier Island sits in the Chesapeake Bay, accessible only by sea or air — a speck of Accomack County so isolated that residents speak with an accent reminiscent of Elizabethan English. Only 15 percent of the island’s inhabitants have taken the census. That is among the lowest response rates of all towns in the U.S.

The average age on Tangier Island is 52; one-third of the residents are 65 or older. “These are older folks,” Cara Burton said. “They have internet access, but that’s not their preference for communication.” 

Burton said older people especially in rural areas are reluctant to give the Census Bureau what they consider personal information. “For some people, there’s an underlying distrust of the government.”

That’s just one of the obstacles Virginia faces in persuading people to complete the census, which like other aspects of life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a new challenge emerged: The Census Bureau, which had just started sending workers to the homes of non-responding households, moved up its deadline for finishing the tabulation. 

Originally, the bureau planned to conduct door-to-door enumeration through Oct. 31. But on Aug. 3, Steven Dillingham, the agency’s director, said the bureau would accelerate the process and end all data collection on Sept. 30.

His announcement caught state and local officials by surprise. The Virginia Complete Count Commission, a group appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam to promote participation in the census, is scrambling to adjust.


The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.