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More in Salt Lake County filled out census than they did 10 years ago

Utah and its most populous county boast higher rates than the nation

Attendees recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the grand opening of the Salt Lake City-area census office in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
Attendees recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the grand opening of the Salt Lake City-area census office in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Whether hunkered down at home or working on the front line, more Salt Lake County residents managed to respond to the 2020 U.S. census survey than 10 years ago.

Nearly 3 in 4 of the county’s households typed, telephoned or mailed in their answers to the once-a-decade count, county leaders announced Tuesday, compared to 71.6% in 2010. The rate also includes those who spoke with a census worker after a knock at the door.

“I’d love to report that we’re at 100%,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson told members of the County Council on Tuesday. “But 75% is an improvement over 2010. And it really is strong.”

The more accurate the count, the better the state’s most populous county can plan for growth and change, Wilson said. The numbers inform federal funding for schools, roads and hospitals and determine political boundaries from the local level to the U.S House of Representatives.

Salt Lake County’s 74.3% response rate tops that of the state as a whole — 71% — and the nation, at 67%. And while the county and state are boasting better participation, the national percentage slipped by 7 points.

It was the first time that a person could answer the questions online, a change expected to encourage responses. But as Americans tried to hold onto jobs, home-school children and adapt to a new reality, fewer ultimately participated before the count wrapped up in October, Woolford said.

The uptick in Salt Lake County participation is no coincidence, said Wilson, a Democrat. When the pandemic shut down events planned to drum up participation, her employees quickly adapted.

“We had to pivot quickly and get creative,” said Marti Woolford, the special projects coordinator in the Mayor’s Office for New Americans.

Woolford and her colleagues boosted online marketing efforts, reminding Facebook users in one post that an accurate count helps firefighters and other first responders determine how to react to disasters.

And they donned masks as they held signs outside a pickup location offering free meals for low-income families with young kids.

The county of 1.16 million — more than 13 of the state’s total population — is home to many groups that the count has struggled to capture in the past, including immigrants, refugees, college students and young kids.

Population experts have said efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to have undocumented immigrants excluded from the count would dissuade the group and their loved ones from participating. The administration is pursuing the change in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Trump prevails, Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw wondered aloud how the move could affect Salt Lake County. Woolford said that’s not clear, but Utah would not be poised to lose any congressional seats like other states with larger shares of undocumented immigrants.

The Beehive State is home to roughly 95,000 without legal permission, according to 2016 estimates from the Pew Research Center, the most recent available.

Over the last three years, the county worked with nonprofits, community leaders, schools and others to emphasize the importance of responding, Woolford said.

The pandemic affected the count in other ways.

Resort towns logged the most dismal participation rates in the county, with 18% in Alta and 26% in Brighton, according to Woolford. That’s in large part because the count began April 1, after ski resorts shut down early because of the coronavirus, driving employees out of town.

“We also saw that in Bryce, Torrey,” Woolford said. “The small, touristy towns have the same consequence of COVID.”