WASHINGTON — This was the year the Census Bureau was primed for a gargantuan task — remaking the census of nearly 330 million Americans for the digital age at a time of enormous national division and obstacles to an accurate count.
Then came the coronavirus.
Early indications are that the first part of the process — getting as many Americans as possible to respond via the census website, by mail or by phone — has gone well.
But the severe virus-related limitations on mobility and personal contact have completely upended a decade of planning how to accurately count those who do not reply on their own and particularly difficult to reach portions of the population. Fair political representation and billions of federal dollars are riding on the result.
Wednesday, April 1, is census day, the official beginning of the decennial count that began 230 years ago. Below are questions and answers about this year’s particular challenges and more.
What is the significance of April 1?
Census day is mostly a way to draw attention to the census and its importance. Nearly all households have already received instructions on how to complete the form. But April 1 is also a fundamental marker — the bureau’s mandate is to count everyone who is a member of a household on that day, including often-overlooked people like small children, boarders and relatives.
Households that fail to complete the 12-question form will get periodic postcard nudges, and those that have not responded by mid-April will be mailed paper forms. Census takers are scheduled to start tracking down those who ignore the reminders on May 27. Responding is required by federal law; those who do not can be fined $100, but the bureau says no fines have been levied since the 1970s.
How is the online count coming?
About 38 percent of households have responded since the online portal opened on March 10, a number in line with the bureau’s projections. If you would like to see how your state, city or neighborhood is doing, the Census Bureau is tracking responses daily, and the City University of New York is publishing maps that offer an even more granular breakdown.
Other aspects of the count, though, are facing unexpected obstacles. Already, a multi-day nationwide count of roughly a half-million homeless people has been put off. Processing of mailed-in census forms has slowed because the bureau shaved its staff at regional centers in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Tuscon, Ariz. And social-distancing cuts in the bureau’s call center work force have slowed down responses to people who want to complete the census by phone or need other kinds of help.
What plans have been disrupted or canceled?
The bureau wants as many households as possible to respond to the census early because tracking down non-responders and persuading them to answer the questionnaire is hugely expensive and difficult. So a massive publicity and public awareness blitz was scheduled to reach out on federal, state and local levels.
But the coronavirus has upended huge parts of that campaign, which envisioned crowded public events centered on the census. Promise Neighborhoods, an Allentown, Pa., group, had to scrap a local basketball tournament that would have drawn hundreds. Chicago is setting up 100 computer kiosks for online census work at gathering points, but pandemic-spooked residents are not gathering to use them. Detroit census organizers canceled 90 public events that were supposed to promote the head count.
Unable to draw crowds or even to knock on doors, census supporters are improvising new ways to drum up response. Detroit plans to enlist 600 neighborhood block groups that will compete to achieve the highest census response. One California group has abandoned its door-to-door campaign and is instead handing out census information at places like food banks. State and local campaigns everywhere have ramped up social media advertising. In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a campaign is targeting Hispanic households that are traditionally hard to count by inserting Spanish-language ads in Facebook videos that are reached via Spanish internet addresses.
How does the census count those who don’t respond?
The Census Bureau has not completely figured that out. The bureau had planned to dispatch hundreds of thousands of census takers to track down tens of millions of households and individuals who fail to respond. The plan was to record their answers to the census questions on specially equipped iPhones. Whether and how that happens depends on if the pandemic ebbs sufficiently to make that sort of door-knocking safe.
Experts say much of that work may be able to be conducted fairly safely, in front-porch interviews that do not require a census taker to enter a household. One unanswered question is whether households that have already ignored repeated requests to fill out the census will even open their doors to strangers in the midst of an epidemic.
The bureau has extended the final deadline for finishing the count by two weeks, to mid-August. Officials say a further extension has not been ruled out — but the further it gets from the publicity of census day, the less likely people are to consider filling out the form, experts say.
When does the census process end and how confident are experts that the count will be accurate?
Federal law requires the bureau to deliver population totals to the president by Dec. 31; the states will use those totals to reapportion political districts in 2021. But how accurate those totals will be is anything but easy to say.
In 2010, more than 98 percent of households that were sent census forms were tallied by the count’s end — an impressive accomplishment. But the census missed households the bureau did not know existed, some households failed to report everyone who lived there, and not all population groups were counted equally. By the bureau’s own count, the 2010 count missed 16 million people, double-counted 8.5 million and counted another 1.5 million either by mistake or in the wrong place. Minorities and young children were undercounted; non-Hispanic whites were overcounted.
The 2020 census faced a huge task just in addressing those problems, and the pandemic makes the job much more daunting, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert and consultant to a range of groups seeking an accurate count.
“A successful census is one that counts all communities equally well,” she said. “With the challenges the coronavirus is presenting, I’m worried about the consistency of census operations and level of effort across states and communities.
“And that is a fundamental factor in evaluating not only whether the census is acceptably accurate — but whether it is fair.”