ST. LOUIS — Before the 2020 census is launched in January, a number of issues will need to be resolved: the possibility of a citizenship question, use of the internet as a primary reporting method in some communities and campaigns to disrupt the count.
The decennial census is a monumental task to produce an official count of the U.S. population, as well as track demographic changes within the nation. it will determine the number of representatives each state will have in Congress and allocate billions of dollars in federal funds.
The U.S. Census Bureau is required to deliver its head count to the president by Dec. 31, 2020.
Ramp-up has already begun. A census office has been opened in Kansas City to serve as a hub for field staff support and data collection in the area.
The Census Bureau began recruiting workers nearly eight months ago for office and field supervisors, clerks and census takers. Workers will report to 248 census offices nationwide.
“When you think about the census, and the magnitude, it is a major deployment of individuals on various operations over about a 20-month timeline,” said Marilyn Sanders, regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau, during a conference about the upcoming census Friday in St. Louis.
Beginning this fall, hundreds of thousands of workers hired by the bureau will begin compiling a complete and accurate list of addresses for each living quarter in the country according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.
In Missouri, the count will be complicated by its rural geography, limited broadband access and seasonal flooding. The state forfeited approximately $1,200 in federal dollars for every resident who was not counted in 2010, according to estimates by The George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
Households will begin receiving invitations in March to respond to the census either online or by telephone. If a household fails to respond to several invitations, the bureau will send a paper questionnaire to be returned by mail.
If the bureau does not receive a response to the paper questionnaire, census workers, called enumerators, will begin visiting households to conduct an in-person survey.
The 2020 census will not be the first time the bureau offers the option to respond online — residents could respond to the short form census online in 2000 — but this is the first time it will be the primary reporting method.
On Friday, Sanders acknowledged that some households will not be able to respond online due to a lack of, or limited, internet access. Households have until August 2020 to respond before enumerators begin visiting unresponsive households.
If those visits fail, too, households become “proxy eligible,” meaning enumerators can collect information from a knowledgeable person outside the home.
Sanders was less direct about the possibility of a citizenship question on the census form.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided the bureau should include a question about a resident’s citizenship status on the 2020 census. Democrats in Congress criticized the move as a political ploy to discourage responses from legal and unauthorized immigrants. It is now before the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the issue in late June.
Sanders said at Friday’s conference the citizenship question was the “elephant in the room,” but regardless of the ruling, she said the bureau would do the job mandated by the Constitution and “count everyone once, only once and in the right place.”
Thomas McAuliffe, director of health policy for Missouri Foundation for Health, told the audience at the conference Friday that whether the citizenship question was included in the census or not, it created the illusion that the bureau had an agenda beyond counting the population.
“We are fighting against some of the hard-to-count communities already having apathy, skepticism and a barrier to participation,” McAuliffe said. “That is a reality, and we are going to have to work at it.”
Federal law prohibits the bureau from releasing personally identifiable information, including citizenship status, collected from residents during the census until 72 years after the information was collected, according to the bureau website.
The Census Bureau has acknowledged that distrust of government is a barrier to a proper count. The 2020 census will be the first conducted since the widespread use of social media and so-called “fake news.”
In March, Ron Jarmin, deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau, told Reuters that the bureau anticipated disinformation campaigns and requested help from big tech companies to combat any threat to the count.
Sanders said the bureau’s public information office would use social media to identify any misinformation that attempts to disrupt the count.
“Of course that is on everyone’s minds, and we are preparing for it,” she said.
During the 2010 census, approximately 9% of Missouri’s population lived in “hard-to-count” communities. These are locations where the self-response rate to the census was relatively low.
In 2010, at least 75% of households mailed back their questionnaires, requiring more costly and difficult in-person follow-up to secure the remaining quarter of the population.
By comparison, approximately 16% of households in Illinois and 10% of households in Kansas were located in hard-to-count communities.
Five census tracts in Boone County, all within or surrounding Columbia, are considered hard to count due to low response rates. Two of those tracts also contained a 20% or higher percentage of households with either no home internet subscription or only dial-up internet, a potential barrier to responding to an online census questionnaire in 2020, according to the bureau’s website.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.