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The pandemic threw a wrench in the 2020 Census. Advocates are trying to limit the damage.

The pandemic threw a wrench in the 2020 Census. Advocates are trying to limit the damage.

Picture of Elissa Lee
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Given the unrelenting crush of news ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests, it can be hard to remember this is a census year, or why that matters. But the 2020 Census will have a huge influence on the next decade in the U.S., on everything from how many state representatives will sit in the House of Representatives, to where hospitals and schools are built, to even how we respond to the next outbreak or pandemic.

Field operations around the nation have been delayed and the deadline to fill out the census has been postponed. Census officials around the country have been forced to rethink how they can ensure everyone is counted. As of June 8, field operations have already resumed in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the Island Areas, under newly issued guidelines to observe social distancing protocols and wear protective equipment. (The U.S. Census Bureau has a map of what regions have resumed operations.)

As a result of that lost time, many advocates and experts worry that there will be a severe undercount of the historically “hard-to-count” populations, including recent immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, rural residents, farmworkers and the homeless. To combat that, census officials and civic organizations are redoubling their focus on digital platforms and the few locations people can visit during the pandemic, such as essential businesses, to raise awareness of the census.

“With the shelter-in-place, we’ve really had to pivot,” said Ditas Katague, director of the California Complete Count, which oversees and coordinates California’s education and outreach program for the 2020 Census.

The shift includes what Katague calls “high-tech” strategies, such as text messaging, radio and television ads, and social media campaigns, and low-tech efforts, with signs and flyers in grocery stores, pharmacies, school lunch and emergency food distribution sites and clinics.

Other community groups such as We Count LA are finding ways to get creative: A “Census Caravan Day” featuring a parade of cars decorated with information about the census will drive around neighborhoods across Los Angeles on June 17 to raise awareness. Latino Muslim Unity, a grassroots nonprofit, is hosting drive-through taco trucks at mosques, offering free Halal tacos and encouraging participants to fill out the census while they wait in their cars.

There’s a lot at stake.

“The census is the basis of our representative democracy,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Education Fund, a national organization that seeks to foster civic engagement amongst Latinos. “It is critical to the protection of civil rights, to the allocation of nearly one and a half trillion dollars [annually] in federal funds to states and localities, and to the purpose of making informed decisions. And that is why, in this current moment, the census is especially important.”

The census is used to distribute public funding every decade and to redraw voting districts in 2021. Census data are used by government officials, public policies, city planners, first responders and more to determine their appropriate response to the needs of the population.

In a typical census year, households begin receiving mailings asking them to fill out the census by mail, phone, or, as of 2020, online. For households who haven’t responded by April, census workers would usually come knocking on doors.

Currently, more than 60% of households have responded to the census. (This is the first time the U.S. Census Bureau has released response rates in real time.)

While that may seem encouraging, counts in hard-to-reach communities lag behind. “They’re falling short in outreach to Latino and immigrant communities,” said Vargas.

Data shared by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research, shows that people of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indian/Alaska Native) risk facing undercounts, particularly in large cities and areas disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, although response rates in Black communities have increased more than 4 percent in the past month, they still lag behind White (non-Hispanic) by 10 percent.

Los Angeles County, dubbed the “hardest-to-count” county in the nation, is a microcosm of the broader challenges facing the census. California has set aside $187 million to count the estimated 11 million residents who fall into the state’s hard-to-count category, and has partnered with 120 community nonprofits to serve as trusted messengers within different communities.

“Nearly half of the population in Los Angeles meet hard-to-count criteria, including racial and ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, renters, mixed-status families, young children, and the homeless,” said Stephania Ramirez, director of strategic initiatives at California Community Foundation, a nonprofit leading LA County’s census initiative.

Even before the pandemic, the census was facing a host of challenges this year. A proposed citizenship question, introduced by the Trump administration in 2019, was never added, but generated a chilling effect among potential respondents, according to NALEO. A national survey conducted by NALEO showed half of Latino respondents still expected a citizenship question on the census, months after the decision was made to exclude it. “This had created fear and mistrust in a broad range of communities, which could result in reluctance to participate and inaccurate census data,” said Vargas.

The state’s ongoing shelter-in-place order made field counts far more challenging, since census workers often can’t rely on in-person visits to dispel myths about the census and emphasize that census responses will be kept confidential.

“That’s the biggest concern we’ve been hearing across the board,” said Ramirez. “Is this really going to be confidential? Will I have ICE knocking at my door? Technically, it’s only supposed to be two people living in this apartment, but we have 10. Is this going to cause a problem with my landlord? And are there other things the federal government can do with this information that can harm us?”

Federal law requires that any information collected from the census must be kept confidential for 72 years.

Many households have found it increasingly difficult to respond to the census by phone and online. “We’ve heard that there were a lot of issues with the Census Bureau failing to adequately staff the non-English response lines, which created significant barriers and long wait times for millions of Americans who are critical to our count,” said Bessie Chan-Smithan, director of community engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). This problem has been compounded by limitations on the number of operators at a given call center, due to pandemic-related health safety guidelines during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, advocacy organizations are asking Congress to provide an additional $1.68 billion to the census for operational changes, such as lease extensions for census offices and protective equipment.

NALEO, along with AAJC and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, has also urged Congress “to require more thorough and frequent reports on 2020 Census progress” on how the crisis is affecting the census.

“It's falling on community-based organizations to continually communicate what these changing operations are,” said Chan-Smithan.

The very factors that make this year’s census so challenging also make it all the more essential.

“A complete count is more urgent than ever because of the current crisis with COVID-19, to do everything that we can to not only provide safety and support to those communities that are hardest hit, but moving forward, providing rights and access to healthcare, water, all of the things that are the social determinants of health,” said Nancy Lopez, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. “Maybe there’s the opportunity with a complete census, in that we could rethink how we use our resources to make sure any inequalities that are happening in our communities are dealt with … and that all communities are taken care of during and after this crisis.”

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