The 2020 Census Could Decide Puerto Rico’s Future

Why the US Census Matters

By Mivette Vega

May 13, 2020

The Census will confirm if the population of the island has significantly changed after Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes.

This year, complying with the 2020 Census is especially significant for Puerto Ricans, in light of the changes experienced by the island’s population in recent years.

After Hurricane Maria caused severe damage in September 2017, massive immigration of Puerto Ricans took place, especially to states like Florida and Texas. The southern region had its own second exodus last January when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake caused serious damages in Ponce, Guánica, and Guayanilla.

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These situations represent a possible shift in Puerto Rico’s population. In 2010 the total population of the island was 3,725,789, according to the Census. Jeff T. Behler, New York regional census director, explained why it is so important for Puerto Ricans to fill out the Census this year.

“It’s going to be interesting. The only thing that’s been done until now is estimating the number of people leaving the island, or trying to take a sample survey to understand how many people actually left. The Census is so important because we need to see,” said Behler.

“This is not a sample; this is not an estimate. We are going to visit every house across the island, Vieques, and Culebra, to complete an accurate account. That’s why it’s so important to see the effects over the past 10 years, and over the last few years. How many people have truly left? How many people are staying? Is there immigration in Puerto Rico from other areas?”

As of May 12, the island’s self-response rate to the Census is 8.1%, a dramatic difference if compared to Alaska’s already low 39.4% rate.

“I don’t think it’s fair to compare response rates. Elsewhere materials are mailed directly: the forms, the Census ID, the list of toll-free numbers. We’ve already asked Puerto Rico residents to wait if they did not receive mail from us. Please be patient; don’t go online and try to fill out the form without your Census ID. That has been our message all along. So this is totally expected, and I really don’t like to compare the situation to anywhere else, because Puerto Rico is unique as far as the entire territory,” Behler explained.

The regional director also said this year’s Census recruiting phase went well. After recruiting, finding the right addresses of citizens is the next phase of fieldwork.

“We decided to hand-deliver invitation packages to every household in Puerto Rico. The address structures there are very different. To get the most accurate count and allow the most time between hurricane Maria and some other issues, this is the latest possible time the Census could update their address list. So as we deliver the packages we update addresses, just to make sure we got each one and can account for it at the conclusion of the Census,” said Behler.

The Census team was unable to finish their deliveries, which began on March 15, one day before the government imposed a lockdown on the island to control the spread of the coronavirus.

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“We only got to maybe 8% or 9% of the households before we had to shut things down. We had to close the four offices we have in Puerto Rico,” said the director.

Behler expects employees will be able to start work soon. The lockdown has been extended until May 25, so for now, they are receiving training. He said employees will receive all the necessary protective gear. When visiting homes, they will be allowed to see from a distance if someone’s in, avoiding unnecessary direct interaction. The director also said people interested in working for the Census can still apply.

The census official went on to explain that once residents receive the Census package, they should choose from the several options available to fill out the Census: online, by phone, or by mail.

Behler emphasized the importance of accurate data, which will help in the near future when important decisions are made to deal with the pandemic.

“Be it education or healthcare… For instance, when we talk about healthcare, it’s not just funding for hospitals or supplies. Important decisions will have to be made. When the future is based on the pandemic we are all experiencing, let’s make sure leaders who are making decisions have the most accurate data. Whether determining how many vaccines are needed for the community or the need for hospitals and elderly and infant care, let’s give officials the best data available so they can make the most informed decisions.”

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