The 2020 Census is already facing delayed deadlines and suspended operations because of the coronavirus
  • Every ten 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 end 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 March 20, 18.6 million households have self-responded to the US Census.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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 86,000 coronavirus cases and 1,300 deaths in the United States so far. 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 has temporarily suspended field operations and has pushed back several deadlines. 

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 $67.5 million a year for the past decade,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Multiple Census dates, outreach, and operations are affected

The Census Bureau has already announced extended deadlines to ensure a more accurate count amid the uncertainty surrounding the virus. According to the Bureau, households can self-respond until Aug. 14 instead of until July 31. Nonresponse follow-up, early response follow-up, and the mobile assistance program — all of which help ensure a complete and accurate count — are all delayed and will end on Aug. 14. Other deadlines are also delayed, such as group quarters and service-based enumerations.

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.

Most field operations take place in May when workers follow 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, Census officials said the National Processing Center and Paper Data Capture Center 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 centers 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 is at 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.

18.6 million households have already responded to the census as of March 20, according to the phone news briefing. The Census Bureau’s response rate 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.

From March 19, 2020 to March 23, 2020, there has been a 6.9% percentage point increase in total self-responses across the country. 

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, census officials said they have surpassed their application goal with 2.8 million applicants. They are receiving about 8,000 applicants a day.

The census officials also said more than 600,000 Americans have accepted job offers for field operations, including door-to-door counting. They are now in the onboarding process which includes steps like fingerprinting before training, but all onboarding activities have been suspended until April 1.

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.

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