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COVID-19 Stories: Upping the Census Count

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Text messages and grocery store receipts?

That was not part of the expansive outreach campaign Joan Gustafson and her partners envisioned when they set out three years ago to persuade more Michiganders to participate in the national 2020 Census.

Squads of outreach workers were supposed to promote the critical, once-a-decade headcount, which determines where trillions of federal dollars will be spent on things like child-care and highway repair. Adding to the challenge? In 2010, Michigan had the lowest turnout among all states in the upper Midwest, only 67 percent.

But Michigan is under a stay-at-home order, like most states, and suffering one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the nation. So Gustafson, manager of Michigan’s nonprofit census campaign and external affairs director for the Michigan Nonprofit Association, quickly led her team in a retooling that was creative and flexible, yet still sensitive and safe, given the crisis.

They doubled down on promos through social media. They produced videos for homebound children. They placed flyers in bags at food banks, and paid for ads on grocery store receipts, so families had the message right in their hands. They launched a text messaging campaign, knowing it could get tricky if people found it intrusive.

“It’s been totally nerve-wracking, but we’ve been plugging away just hoping these new strategies are successful,” Gustafson said. “I’m so proud of my team.”

And then, the payoff, at least so far: Despite everything, Michigan has been among the top five states in the 2020 census response throughout April, and at one point was tied for second.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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