The 2020 Census is already facing delayed deadlines and suspended operations because of the coronavirus

The Census Bureau has announced several timeline changes in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Bill Clark/Contributor/Getty Images
  • Every 10 years, the US Census counts every single person living in the United States.
  • The novel coronavirus that has spread across the United States has begun to cause social and economic havoc, and the Census Bureau’s efforts have also been affected.
  • An accurate census is extremely important for American communities because it is used to determine congressional representation and billions of dollars of federal funding.
  • The Bureau has had to delay important deadlines and operations to ensure the health and safety of its workers and responders.
  • As of April 13, 71.9 million households, or just under half of the country, have self-responded to the US Census.
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Every 10 years, the US Census Bureau counts every person in the United States and its territories. This year’s census faces an unprecedented hurdle: the novel coronavirus outbreak sweeping around the world.

There have been over 607,000 coronavirus cases and over 25,800 deaths in the United States as of April 13. As a precautionary measure to slow down the spread of the virus, schools and businesses have closed across the country.

The census count is also facing struggles in response to the ongoing crisis. The Bureau had temporarily suspended field operations and had pushed back several deadlines in March. According to a Census Bureau press release on April 13, field offices should reopen on June 1 to continue field operations in the following weeks.

According to the April 13 press release from US Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau is asking that the deadline for delivering final counts be pushed back by 120 days. This would mean field operations and self-responding would extend until October 31, meaning that the total counts that would be used for allocating representatives would be released by April 30, 2021, instead of December 31, 2020. Detailed redistricting data would be sent to state legislatures by July 31, 2021.

An accurate census count is crucial. The census is used to determine congressional representation and billions of dollars of government funding for the next 10 years. As the coronavirus has put many places on lockdown, caused many college students to move off campus, and forced millions of Americans to limit contact with others, it could be even harder to ensure an accurate count.

Why the census count is so important

Filling out the census is important because it determines several key elements of political and economic power for communities across the US. The census count is used to allocate seats in the US House of Representatives and billions of dollars of federal funding.

Albert E. Fontenot Jr., associate director for Decennial Programs of the US Census Bureau, said during a news phone briefing that the census is used to determine funding for hospitals, clinics, emergency preparedness, and school lunch programs – all of which are areas that have been affected by or have played a role in responding to the coronavirus.

It is important that the Census Bureau makes an accurate count, but shutdowns and closures can make this harder. It could especially impact outreach efforts to educate people on why they should complete the census questionnaire.

Julie Menin, director of the Census for New York City, a city operation that is distinct from the US Census, and executive assistant corporation counsel for strategic advocacy for the city government, stressed the impact the Census has on New York. Menin’s role includes outreach efforts that encourage residents in New York City to complete the census.

“Health care funding is directly linked to the census,” Menin said. “So whether it’s funding for hospitals, funding for Medicaid, funding for children’s health insurance or the important fact that the New York City health department looks at census data in determining responses to emergencies. “

In 2010, roughly 62% of residents in New York City responded to the decennial census, while the national average was 76%.

Menin said this had an impact on the city’s funding for programs. “We lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars because New Yorkers did not complete the census,” she said.

Some experts believe that because of the coronavirus, pushing back the due date to fill out the census is a good idea so everyone has a chance to fill it out and the census can get an accurate count.

“I think the most important thing is for [the Census] to extend the period so that the census could be conducted when things are normal.” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said. “Right now people are concerned about survival. They’re concerned about their children. They are separated from their loved ones because of social distancing.”

Morial said “it is crucially important” that Americans fill out the census as soon as they can.

“This data affects money, it affects power,” Morial said.

Menin agrees with Morial.

“We are in an unprecedented situation. It’s really concerning,” Menin said. “This census determines our funding and our political representation for the next 10 years. So I do, I do think they should.”

Undercounts in the census have huge consequences for communities. Morial mentioned that in 2010 there was an undercount of children in some states, such as Florida, which affected the number of slots for children in daycare as well as federal funding for programs in the city. Undercounting of children under 5 years old in Florida resulted in a loss of funding of “at least $US67.5 million a year for the past decade,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Multiple Census dates, outreach, and operations are affected

The Census Bureau had already announced extended deadlines to ensure a more accurate count amid the uncertainty surrounding the virus. Under the revised deadlines as of April 13, the self-response phase would be extended until October 31, making that the new deadline for households and individuals to fill out their census forms themselves. Nonresponse follow-up would take place between August 11 and October 31.

The Bureau’s programs to complete the count have been delayed or suspended as well. US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in a press release on March 18 that Census field operations will be suspended until April 1, 2020 – what is considered Census Day – amid the coronavirus outbreak. Census Day is the reference date for completing the census: When filling out the census, you should indicate where you live as of April 1.

In a press release on March 28, the Census Bureau wrote that field operations will continue to be suspended until April 15, adding two weeks to the original delay. However, in the latest press release on April 13, officials wrote field operations will begin again in June.

Most field operations would have taken place in May when workers would have started following up with people who haven’t responded. According to the Associated Press, field operations that were already going on included “primarily dropping off paper questionnaires at places with no fixed addresses and large numbers of seasonal workers” and preparing to count for the homeless population and the Group Quarters Enumeration, which includes student housing, nursing homes, and prisons.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” Dillingham said in the press release.

The mobile assistance program, where Census staff were supposed to be “at events and locations where people naturally gather” in communities with typically low response rates to help people respond, is delayed according to a news phone briefing.

In another press release on March 18, Census officials said the National Processing Centre and Paper Data Capture Centre East in Jeffersonville, Indiana, will move to the “minimum number of on-site staff necessary to continue operations” until April 1 as another way to protect the health of Census workers. These centres process census responses from across the nation.

Fontenot and Timothy P. Olson, associate director for field operations of the US Census Bureau, said during the news phone briefing that they are encouraging people to respond as soon as they can so they can get an accurate count. They also said they are following federal, state, and local level guidance, such as social distancing regulations, during the coronavirus outbreak.

In New York City, Menin said the New York City Census 2020 has adapted their city outreach in response to the coronavirus, switching to more digital methods and TV ads.

Menin said because of the coronavirus, they were able to move the planned budget for subway ads to digital ads. “Since so many New Yorkers are at home right now, we need to reach them where they are and that means converting what would have been subway ads into instead digital and TV ads,” she said.

To continue encouraging New Yorkers to fill out the Census, Menin said the Census for New York City conducted a text-a-thon on March 22 and 23. Menin said in a tweet on March 23 that after 600,000 texts on March 22, New York City’s self-response rate was up to 15.1%. Menin noted the city’s response rate was only at 6% on March 23, 2010, suggesting that the outreach may have helped boost response rates.

Menin tweeted the final self-response count after the end of all texting efforts, reaching almost 1 million New Yorkers. New York City overall had a self-response rate of 16.8%, with Manhattan and Staten Island both with self-response rates of at least 19%.

The Census for New York City is also doing phone banking and has already provided social media kits to “community groups, elected officials, clergy members to make sure that they’re reaching all of their respective groups” as other ways to reach New Yorkers.

The decennial census also collects data on-campus college students and Americans in other kinds of living situations. However, the coronavirus has caused several colleges to close, requiring students to move out of campus.

In a press release on March 15, the Census said it is working with universities to address those problems and making sure that on-campus students are counted correctly. The Census wrote that they should be counted based on where they sleep and live most of the time as of April 1.

Nonresponse follow-up at colleges is also delayed according to the news briefing.

Many Americans have already responded or applied to work for the Census

Despite the delays, many Americans are still responding to the census or applying for temporary census jobs.

71.9 million households have already responded to the census as of April 13, according to the Census Bureau’s response rate map. The map shows how many Americans have filled out their census forms in each state, city, county, and congressional district and how the current response rate stacks up to the 2010 final response rate.

As of April 13, at least 51% of households within 15 states have self-responded to the Census. Minnesota had the largest share of households self-respond, at 58.1%.

Information regarding how to fill out the census was sent out on March 12. Americans have three options for filling out the census: online, by phone, or by mail. However, not everyone has access to the internet in their homes, and with social distancing policies making it difficult or impossible to go out to a library or business where they can get access, filling out the census online might not be an option.

Even some households with internet access are on limited data plans, meaning they would have to use some of their data to fill out the census, Morial said.

People can still apply to be a temporary worker for the US Census. During a media briefing in March, census officials said they have surpassed their application goal with 2.8 million applicants. They were receiving about 8,000 applicants a day.

In March, the census officials said more than 600,000 Americans have accepted job offers for field operations, including door-to-door counting. All onboarding processes, which includes steps like fingerprinting before training, and all onboarding activities have been temporarily suspended.

The 2020 Census website has a section dedicated to coronavirus news regarding the census. However, Morial said he believes the census director should be communicating more with Americans about the census and being more transparent about the current situation.