The coronavirus pandemic poses huge challenges to the massive decennial effort to count every person living in the United States, a critical task that’s already underway. Connecting with every single resident, including college students and non-English speakers, is challenging under the best of circumstances. Even before the outbreak, the 2020 count was already off to a rough start, plagued by trouble hiring census workers and confusion over a misguided citizenship question the Trump administration attempted to add to the questionnaire.
Because of the vital importance of an accurate census, which is mandated in the US Constitution and used to divide up seats in Congress and allocate federal spending on schools, health care, and other programs, the bureau should heed the growing calls to push back its deadlines. If the outbreak continues, the agency also needs to develop contingency plans to replace the efforts it had developed to find hard-to-reach residents.
Americans have already started receiving census invitations in the mail. But mailed forms are only one facet of the census. The agency also reaches out directly to Americans and conducts in-person canvassing — activities threatened during the outbreak.
On Wednesday, the agency announced that all census field operations will be suspended for two weeks, until April 1. That was a sensible step to protect its employees and residents. One census bureau worker — a supervisor for a group of door knockers — has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. (The agency said the employee has not been in contact with the public and is in quarantine.) Then, on Friday, the bureau extended the current July 31st deadline to count residents for two more weeks.
Yet a two-week delay won’t address the coming risks as the bureau gears up for a key phase in the effort: in-person outreach to people in their homes if they haven’t responded to the mailed survey or filled it out online. It’s why some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are asking the agency to extend, for three months, the summer deadline for people to complete the census.
April and May were supposed to be critical months in the 2020 census’ operational timeline, with workers following up, in-person, with nonresponsive households. The last official day to respond to the census is July 31, the deadline some members of Congress — including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Adriano Espaillat of New York — want pushed to October. Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, the chairman of the National Governors Association, is also asking for a delay.
A major initiative to help count residents in communities with low response rates and in places with big digital gaps had already been delayed previously. That effort, into which the bureau is investing at least $100 million, involves sending workers armed with tablets to places like libraries, grocery stores, or community centers to help people fill out census forms online or on their smartphones. Given social distancing mandates — and even possible shelter-in-place orders — as mitigation measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such strategies, as well as any follow-up door-to-door visits, are becoming impossible.
Yet the agency seems to have no emergency plan to respond and is refusing to reveal its contingency strategies in “a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty," as the inspector general for the Department of Commerce, which oversees the US Census Bureau, put it in a memo last week to the bureau’s director. Among other detailed queries, the IG wanted to know the agency’s specific plans to address “a situation where social distancing measures become widespread — and households become reluctant, or refuse altogether, to engage with enumerators.“ Will door-to-door workers “be provided with personal protective equipment for use during enumeration?“
Here’s what’s at stake in Massachusetts: Many of our gateway cities have a high percentage of their populations living in “hard to count“ census tracts. Lawrence, for instance, tops the list with 86 percent of residents in those tracts. In Springfield, the city library got a $90,000 state grant to operate as a “census service center,” where city residents who have no Internet access at home could complete their census forms online. Due to COVID-19, the library is now closed and all programming has been suspended until April 11.
“These communities will be disproportionately affected by a potential undercount,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “And they’re the ones who need to be counted the most.”
Galvin believes the census deadlines must be delayed. He also supports calls for the bureau to increase the use of reliable government administrative records to count residents who do not respond to the census. These include data compiled by agencies like the Social Security Administration, or even the Boston Housing Authority. Using administrative records could help produce an accurate count of college students, for instance. That subgroup is notoriously hard to reach — and that was before the coronavirus shut down campuses.
The outbreak is a major disruption of the census effort, already an elaborate and time-consuming operation. The US Census Bureau must respond accordingly. We’ll be living with the economic consequences of this count for the next 10 years. The bureau has to get it right.
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