Janelle Kukuk had misgivings as soon as she heard how officials planned to conduct the once-a-decade census in tiny Mineral County.
Dropping census packets off at people’s homes might work in cities and suburbs. But in this Colorado county of 865, residents live on sprawling acreages sometimes inaccessible to delivery people. Her UPS packages are left in a lockbox on the side of the highway. Her census packet, delivered last May, was dropped onto a gatepost 5 miles from her house.
The plan, Kukuk thought, was flawed. And it galvanized her to get more involved.
The long-time county administrator got busy contacting every property owner and personally guiding confused or technically challenged residents through the census.
“PLEASE RESPOND,” said one note the county sent. “Mineral County is Counting on You!”
In the end, her monthslong push seems to have worked. When census data was released in August, Mineral County looked like one of the fastest growing counties in the state — not because it’s a boomtown, officials said, but because of Kukuk’s campaign to get a more accurate count of residents than in the 2010 Census. The population increased by 153 residents, up from 712 the decade prior.
“Rural America, rural Colorado doesn’t really come up very high on people’s radars,” said Kukuk, the county administrator since 2015. “But to us, a 153 person difference, that’s huge.”
On paper at least, Mineral County’s 21.5% population increase makes it the only small county to buck the state’s growing divide between the expanding Front Range and stagnating rural areas to the south and east. And it could be a boon for the county as the census guides how $1.5 trillion in federal aid is distributed for programs including affordable housing and Medicaid.
Officials say Mineral County represents a bright spot in the effort to accurately conduct the census in an unusually trying pandemic year, and that it demonstrates the difficulty of reaching rural regions that are among the hardest to tally for the decennial count.
Census forms aren’t delivered to post office boxes, where residents in sparsely populated swaths of the state often receive their mail. Instead, federal census takers go house-to-house in those areas in an attempt to reach as many people as they can. The sheer distance between homes can be challenging for census workers and the arrival of unexpected visitors is not always welcome.
In rural America, “there’s a reason why we live in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not necessarily to be harassed,” Kukuk said. That’s what residents could think is happening if people keep repeatedly “knocking on their door.”
She lives on a 2,000-acre property 27 miles outside the county’s largest and only town, Creede. An unfamiliar guest would need a map — GPS is not always reliable — to find her road, she said.
Other residents get their mail from a post office box on the town’s main street, and live behind gates, at the ends of long drives, and in areas hard to reach in winter conditions. Addresses are sometimes dropped in favor of local landmarks, like “turn right at the white house,” Kukuk said.
For “people (who) aren’t familiar with the area, it can be a little daunting to drive 22 miles out on a relatively unoccupied road and then turn off on a dirt track for 5 miles,” she said. If they get there, the region’s windy spring conditions mean census packets left hanging on a doorknob or on a gatepost can blow over to a neighbor’s property.
Difficulties getting census forms to remote areas are widespread. State Demographer Elizabeth Garner said it has long been a “big problem” because the census is tied to housing units, not post office boxes and not non-traditional addresses.
“If you look at a block in Denver, it’s pretty easy to count. If you look at a block in Mineral County — I mean, a block doesn’t look like a block,” she said.
But the stakes for an accurate count are high: The census is used to redraw legislative maps and to determine how many lawmakers represent a region and, as a result, how much sway they have over the political process. Colorado also receives about $13 billion in census-guided federal spending a year, translating to about $2,300 per person, according to state estimates.
The tally is so important that Colorado mounted a $6 million push to up participation in the 2020 Census — particularly among hard-to-count residents, including people of color, children under 5, residents of rural areas and those living unlawfully in the U.S.
The state increased its self-response rate to the census by nearly 3%. A higher self-response rate — the number of residents who complete and return the census on their own — means there is less chance someone is missed, and less need for census workers to come follow up in person. Mineral County increased its self-response rate by nearly 4%, the 12th largest bump statewide.
Not every county saw the same boost Mineral County did. Elsewhere, officials are searching for people they think were overlooked in the census count after the pandemic emptied out resort towns and threw a wrench in advocates’ plans to meet face to face with residents.
“Ski resorts weren’t open. Restaurants weren’t open. Retail wasn’t open unless it was essential. There was no traffic on the streets. It was eerily quiet. Kids weren’t in school,” Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said. “It was very difficult to get an accurate count.”
Officials in some rural counties fear they were undercounted in the census, even as they grapple with a surge of new arrivals who flocked to remote locations during the pandemic and drove up demand for housing, goods and services.
Mineral County is feeling a housing pinch, too. Officials attribute most of the growth to the improved count. The county saw just 14 new housing units added in the last decade, indicating few people moved there, said Garner, the state demographer.
But the county’s safe atmosphere and good broadband have drawn enough new homebuyers to cause a housing crunch, making it difficult for even Creede’s town manager to buy a home, officials said.
“I’m arguably one of the highest-paid professionals in Mineral County,” Creede Town Manager Louis Fineberg said. “It’s hard for me to find affordable housing.”
“So many things went wrong”
The 2020 census faced unprecedented challenges, experts said.
In areas like Mineral County, where many residents have post office boxes, census employees use a tactic called Update Leave, where they hand-deliver a census form to each home instead of mailing it. That started around April 2020, as the pandemic began and when a huge storm hit parts of Colorado.
“So many communities called into our office saying, ‘Oh my God. Census forms are blowing all over the city,” Garner, the state demographer, recounted. “You’ve got COVID. You’ve got rural, sparsely populated, often hidden housing units, and non-city style addressing. You’ve got a big storm, and Update Leave forms going everywhere.”
The forms had codes that rural residents had been told to use to fill out the census online.
“So many things went wrong,” Garner said.
That wasn’t all.
Wildfires raged in parts of Colorado last fall, just as the once-a-decade count was winding up.
The Census Bureau wrapped up its count sooner than expected. The Trump Administration unsuccessfully tried to add a question about citizenship that advocates said could have a chilling effect and lead to an undercount.
And in Colorado’s ski resort towns, which already have seasonal visitors and workers, slopes closed in March 2020, displacing low-wage workers who hold service jobs in the industry.
Garner’s office is looking to see if those employees stayed, moved back to their country of origin or to a different state that wasn’t as affected by the pandemic in spring 2020.
A spokesperson for the Census Bureau cited some of those obstacles, in addition to the “political climate.” There were also concerns about poor access to the Internet as residents were able to fill out the once-a-decade questionnaire online for the first time. Nearly 11% of Colorado households had no internet subscription or only dial-up internet as recently as 2018.
The Census Bureau instructed local leaders to form census outreach committees and to emphasize the benefits of a complete count, like new community centers and hospitals, the agency spokesperson said. State grants were used to promote participation.
Local officials and organizations often played pivotal roles as trusted intermediaries.
On the Eastern Plains, one woman said a group of volunteers she’d rallied would call every person in the area to make sure they knew about the census, Garner said.
In the San Luis Valley, local organizations reached out to non-English-speaking communities at farmers markets and contacted farm workers. A local Boys & Girls Club hosted family nights where people could eat pizza and fill out census forms, said Hew Hallock, the director of research for San Luis Valley Development Resources. He started a local census outreach committee with Kukuk.
Concerned about lack of internet in rural Costilla County, Hallock’s committee helped blast residents’ cell phones with text messages, using phone numbers from a company that typically works with ballot issue campaigns. He also bought Facebook advertisements and said each placement was followed by an immediate bump in counties’ census response rates.
“We tried just about everything we could think of,” Hallock said.
Everything, that is, but their original plans — which were derailed by the coronavirus. “We couldn’t invite people to the senior citizen center, for example, to fill it out,” he said.
In Mineral County, Kukuk took a “real personal approach,” telling residents how to complete the census and to call if they had any trouble. She sent two postcards to each landowner telling them about the census, and had employees in the county courthouse prepared to answer questions about the process.
“We are so grateful to our beloved citizens, thanks for living here!” one of the notes said. The other had detailed instructions and described what to expect, where to get help and what filling out the census could mean for the state — “about $2,300 per person per year and includes education programs, transportation money, child care/elder care programs, and health and human services programs.”
“We were just very diligent about making sure that everyone knew,” Kukuk said.
Another challenge in Mineral County: A third of houses in the county are occupied year-round. Kukuk urged second-home owners who live in Mineral County most of the year to respond to the census regardless of what state they were in on April 1, the day that determines who is counted in the census and where.
She’s confident the county got responses from a majority of year-round residents, though the official numbers are bleak.
In Mineral County, 24.9% of residents completed and returned the census on their own, according to data mapped by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The state average was 70% in 2020, and 67% in 2010.
Officials say counties with a large population of second-home owners, who split their time between several counties or states, can have lower response rates. Census workers follow up in-person at households that don’t respond to the questionnaire on their own, but it’s unclear how many they miss.
Some people choose not to respond.
San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper said she heard from undocumented friends who refused to complete the census despite her assurances it would not lead to them being deported.
“To be honest,” she said, “it was difficult for me to push hard. I could not guarantee that it was safe for them to report with that administration in office,” she said, referring to the tenure of President Donald Trump.
In Summit County, assistant county manager Sarah Vaine said less than 15% of the county’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino in the census, but one-third of local school children do.
Local officials had lined up gift cards and free food to incentivize residents to get counted, sent mailers in English and Spanish to each post office box and placed advertisements on La Nueva Mix, the local Spanish-language radio station. They went out to day care pickups and food pantries to talk to people about the census.
Despite their efforts, “there was a lot of fear around responding to the Census and what was going to be done with that data,” Vaine said. “We did try to spend a lot of time educating our entire community about the safety of filling out the census and more importantly, (telling them) here are the programs that benefit from the census data.”
“Help your county help you”
Mineral County was not alone in using postcards and fervent follow-up. The county’s growth rate could be high due to its small population, and experts say the local engagement likely boosted its self-response rate. There are advantages to organizing in a close-knit community, including increased trust, and insight into which households have families who work night shifts, had a recent death or are more reclusive.
Advocacy group Colorado Common Cause tried to use those close relationships to prompt more participation. The group abandoned plans for a census roadshow as infections started spreading in 2020 and turned to handwritten postcards — preferably signed by a friend or neighbor.
“It’s great if it comes from your elected official. It’s great if it comes from the [Census] Bureau. It’s great if it comes from Colorado Common Cause. It’s better if it comes from your neighbor who you know and trust,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the organization.
In Mineral County, County Commissioner Ramona Weber said local officials tried to assure residents the census data would be used to get an accurate count and more federal funding.
“Hey, you’re not going to get chased down by the government,” she said, they said. “You’re not going to get tracked… Help your county help you.”
Weber is among those who believe the county was undercounted in the 2010 census. She didn’t receive a census packet at five-acre property that year and said no one in her subdivision did. Even just making small talk on the street, residents would say “‘I didn’t fill it out. Did you?’ ‘I didn’t get one. Did you get one?’” she said.
“I think it made a big difference,” Weber said, of the county’s efforts last year. “I did hear, ‘hey I got a postcard’ ‘I already sent mine in’ and stuff like that. And some people tease you, ‘Hey, I got more firestarter.’”