With outreach efforts for the 2020 census stifled by the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is strongly encouraging the American public to respond online at mycensus2020.gov.
In a March 18th statement, the Bureau said it would suspend its field operations until April 1 in order to help slow the spread of the virus. While the Bureau joins public and private organizations across the nation in taking this necessary step, concerns about the impact to the constitutionally mandated census count are mounting.
The negative implications of an undercount are wide-ranging because the census helps shape the future of every community in the country — large and small — for a full decade. Much more than a simple tally of people in the U.S., the census determines the number of representatives each state sends to Congress, as well as the allocation of $800 billion in federal funding across a multitude of programs and services.
Because it informs funding decisions for child care, education, heath care, nutrition, housing, transportation and more, the census directly affects nearly everyone in the country. In fact, the multi-faceted response to the nation’s current health crisis is largely informed by population statistics gathered in the last census.
Many organizations across the country were working on census outreach and awareness campaigns before the crisis halted their efforts. For instance, the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) spearheaded the Nonprofits Count Campaign, mobilizing nonprofits to partner with state and local governments in an ambitious effort to improve the state’s census response rate.
MNA’s external affairs officer, Joan Gustafson, said the main driver of the campaign was ensuring historically “hard-to-count” populations — minorities, children, people living in poverty and immigrants — are accurately enumerated. These groups represent many of the people who most rely on census-directed resources and those who are most frequently served by the nonprofit community.
With so much at stake, the new online response option takes on additional importance at a time when most people are hunkered down in their homes. The online format makes it simple for people to complete the short questionnaire at home without having to worry about mailing it or speaking with a census taker in person.
In an encouraging sign, Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said more than 11 million households already have responded in the week since the official 2020 census launch. The current plan is to complete data collection by July 31, but the bureau said that date may be adjusted as the situation evolves in order to achieve a complete and accurate count.
However, there are potential setbacks to adopting an online-first format. Advocates for underrepresented populations have expressed concern about the Census Bureau’s ability to reach people who don’t have computers or internet access at home. Local plans to have several nonprofits and other organizations act as computer hubs in their communities are on hold due to shelter-in-place mandates and social distancing recommendations.
In an earlier statement, the Bureau acknowledged the challenges and strain the national emergency has placed on the enumeration process, and it highlighted mail and phone as other response options that do not require contact with people. They also are working with administrators who oversee institutional living facilities, such as nursing homes, college dorms and prisons, to ensure all residents are accurately counted. Once field operations resume, the agency will move forward with training and deploying thousands of census-takers to count people who have yet to respond.
Though the coronavirus has swiftly upended daily life for millions, completing the census is one of the most positive things people can do right now for their communities. Together, we can ensure we have resources to address future emergencies and help our communities thrive.