Trying to count everyone in the United States is a tough chore in the best times.

Jeff Behler, regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau U.S. Census Bureau

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau is facing unprecedented hurdles as its half a million workers visit homes where nobody has responded yet to its efforts to find out who’s out there.

Maine is a particularly hard place to find everyone even in the best of times, officials said. It’s one of three states where special crews head out to find people living far off the grid.

“We’re going to start knocking on doors” at that point, said Jeff Behler, the New York-based regional director for the census, who oversees the count in New England, New York and New Jersey.

With Maine’s rural areas falling well short of the national average, the state lags behind all of its counterparts in the region, with only a bit over half of its residents responding to the census to date.

There are only four states with a lower response rate than Maine so far – Alaska, West Virginia, Wyoming and New Mexico.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the census off track almost from the start.

Behler said Tuesday that two days after workers began working in the field in March to count the number of people in the country, the government had to pull the plug on the endeavor to ensure everybody’s safety from the new, deadly virus.

Not until May could the agency renew its field effort that’s integral to completing the once-a-decade census by distributing forms.

Behler said that rural Maine is one of the tougher areas in the country to cope with because it is a large, thinly populated area.

It’s so rural, in fact, that 14% of Mainers couldn’t receive mailed invitations to respond to the census online or by phone, he said, because they don’t have delivery to their homes. Behler said the Census Bureau can’t mail the forms to post office boxes, which leaves out many of the people in Maine’s hinterlands.

By now, though, most people should have received the form by mail or in person. Even if they haven’t, Behler said, they can still go online or call the Census Bureau to provide information.

He urged people who haven’t yet filled in the form or provided the information by phone or on the internet to get cracking. Filing soon, Behler said, will ensure nobody from the census winds up at the front door.

A final push to reach everybody begins Aug. 11, Behler said, and leans heavily on hiring trusted people in each community and partnering with institutions and leaders who can let everybody know why the census matters.

The assistance from civic leaders, churches and others has been “truly amazing,” he said.

It’s important to provide the information, state officials said, to make sure Maine gets its fair share of federal aid for everything from schools to roads. It’s also crucial data for drawing the lines for political districts and apportioning the U.S. House, though Maine is in no danger for now of losing one of its two seats.

Behler said people are sometimes wary of responding because they worry that the information will reach the hands of immigration enforcement agencies or other law enforcement agencies. He said that won’t happen because federal law guarantees census confidentiality.

Household-level data isn’t released, he said, for 72 years after it is collected, a boon for genealogists but not much help to the police.

Maine’s rural response rate to the census is much lower than the country as a whole, in part because many lack internet access and in part because of a deep-rooted skepticism about doing much of anything to help the government, officials said.

Three Maine counties in particular are a problem to count – Piscataquis, Somerset and Aroostook.

Many people there, Behler said, “don’t want to be found.”

He said, though, that the census will round up information there, and everywhere.

“That’s our job. We count everyone,” Behler said.

The census is required by law to report its results by Dec. 31, but it has asked Congress to extend the deadline to April 30 next year to provide adequate time for a good count.

Behler said the census is still hiring people to help with its last push. It’s a “great gig job,” he said, and pays $20 an hour plus mileage. Those hired, he said, can set their own days and hours as well.

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