Experts: COVID Pandemic Could Jeopardize 2020 Census Count

By Tammy Joyner 

Where were you on April 1, 2020?

That’s what the U.S. Census Bureau wants to know, but the coronavirus outbreak has made it tough for the agency to conduct its decennial count of America’s population.

With the global pandemic threatening a second — and possibly more virulent— wave, the bureau faces possible further delays in gathering data for the count.

“From the 60,000-foot view, the pandemic has disrupted every single 2020 Census operation — either in small ways or significantly,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a nationally recognized expert and consultant on the census, told Digital Privacy News. “This is not a minor matter.”

Nearly three months have passed since April 1. The more time passes, the greater likelihood individual responses to the census may be inaccurate, experts said.

“People move. People forget,” said Lowenthal, who is based in Stamford, Conn. “And the household more likely to move more often or have people cycling in and out of the household has been historically undercounted.

“The pandemic has disrupted every single 2020 Census operation — either in small ways or significantly.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, Census consultant.

“They are lower-income houses in urban and rural areas and people of color.”

Census Bureau Responds

But Marilyn Stephens disagreed. Based in Broward County, Fla., she is the assistant regional Census manager for seven Southern states comprising the Atlanta region.

“We’re not concerned about pandemic delay hurting the accuracy of the census count,” Stephens told Digital Privacy News. “People’s memories don’t become fuzzy after a few months.

“They remember who was in the house on April 1,” she added. “They’re not asked that many questions.”

While the pandemic temporarily halted Census field operations and ended festivals and other public-outreach events, citizens are still completing their forms, Stephens said.

“We’re not concerned about pandemic delay hurting the accuracy of the census count.”

Marilyn Stephens, U.S. Census Bureau.

For the first time in any counting, people can respond three ways: online, telephone or mail.

“We’re doing well” collecting data, Stephens told Digital Privacy News.

90.9 Million Households Done

To date, more than 61.5% — or 90.9 million — of the 140 million U.S. households have completed the census, Stephens said, with 49.1% completing the forms online.

Fieldwork has resumed — and enumerators are expected to follow-up with nonrespondents starting around August, she said.

Still, Maria Filippelli views any delay from coronavirus in a positive light.

“If you were displaced by COVID-19, you find yourself homeschooling your kids or you’re busy with life, this extended time allows you the opportunity to respond,” Filippelli, public interest fellow at the New America think tank in Washington, told Digital Privacy News.

Census Bureau officials still have to address several other issues if they are to get a full count of America’s population, including:

  • Distrust. The recent climate against immigrants has made some people fearful of answering any government questionnaire, particularly undocumented immigrants.
  • Digital deserts. Some people are living without Wi-Fi, smartphones, computers, and other technological devices — and they cannot access census information online. Some 35% of American adults do not have home internet access, including 53% of Hispanic and 43% of Black adults, according to the Digital Equity Laboratory at The New School in New York.

Legal Protections

“There are many Americans who view the government’s collection of data as an invasion of privacy,” Lowenthal told Digital Privacy News. “I don’t think the Census Bureau is nosy.

“Your personal data, your census responses are protected by the strongest confidentiality protections on the federal books.”

That protection is guaranteed by Title 13 of the U.S. Code, Lowenthal said.

“You have to get more creative with projects.”

Maria Filippelli, New America think tank.

Further, Stephens said that Census Bureau was legally barred from sharing personal data or any information that could identify individuals, households or location with federal, state or local governments; courts; law enforcement; landlords, housing authorities — or in administrative proceedings or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

“The census confidentiality provision even supersedes the post-9/11 Patriot Act, even for national-security purposes,” Lowenthal told Digital Privacy News.

Reaching Out

Meanwhile, Census officials and community groups are using innovative ways to reach hard-to-count communities.

In Chicago, for instance, the hard-to-count population totals about 1.3 million in as many as seven communities where internet service is unreliable — or where residents don’t trust the government.

Vans equipped with Wi-Fi are going into these areas to aid people in filling out census forms.

“You have to get more creative with projects, like what Chicago is doing,” said New America’s Filippelli. “It sounds amazing what Chicago is doing.”

Tammy Joyner is an Atlanta writer.

2020 Census: At a Glance

U.S. households: 140 million.

Households completed census so far: 90.9 million, 61.5%.

Deadline for responses: Oct. 31.

National programs financed by census money: 140.

Money and resources distributed annually: $675 billion.

Dollars distributed over 10 years: $7 trillion.

Programs receiving money: Rural hospitals, highway construction and planning, Medicare, Community Development Grants, early Headstart and Headstart programs, Title I grants and free and reduced lunches for school children.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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