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Analysis

You Can Protect the Census from the Coronavirus

Responding now is the best way to get the count right.

March 27, 2020
You Can Protect the Census from the Coronavirus
Rafael Henrique/Getty

Households around the country began receiving their official invitations to participate in the 2020 Census just as the coronavirus prompted city shutdowns, school closures, and market volatility. Attention almost immediately turned to identifying potential problems the virus poses for the count and big picture fixes for managing them. But there’s one relatively simple step that everyone can take to maximize the chance for an accurate count: responding to the Census as soon as possible.

The stakes are high and rising. The Census will determine how $1.5 trillion of federal funding will be distributed annually for staples like health care, food assistance, and schools — all especially crucial as we endure a potentially long-running pandemic and rebuild our communities in its aftermath. It also controls how congressional seats will be divvied up among the states and how districts for everything from the House of Representatives down to local school boards will be drawn. The Census will set the stage for electing the leaders who will guide us through whatever comes next.

Pandemic or no, delaying responses will only complicate the Census. As many people as possible must send back their information now, before the Census Bureau must come knocking, or the Census will become significantly more expensive, labor intensive, and fraught for the bureau.

Census-taking happens in two main parts. The first started on March 12, when everyone could start using the bureau’s website, their phones, or the mail to fill out the Census form. The second is currently scheduled to start in late-May and run through the middle of August, when the bureau will send door knockers to every household that didn’t respond.

Door-to-door outreach is a massive undertaking, even in a pandemic-free year. For the 2010 Census, the bureau visited approximately 47 million housing units during its “non-response follow-up” operation, relying on an army of 516,709 enumerators. The bureau is aiming to get 60.5 percent of housing units nationwide to self-respond in 2020. Documents that the Trump administration submitted in a recent court case show that the bureau anticipates having to hire 320,000 enumerators in that scenario, based on assumptions that factor in some new technology that the bureau expects will make 2020 more efficient than 10 years ago. If the percentage of responses drops to 55 percent, the bureau anticipates having to hire up to 500,000 enumerators.

The coronavirus will make getting to 60.5 percent difficult. For years, the bureau, state and local governments, nonprofits, and philanthropies all around the country have been trying to encourage people to self-respond by meeting them where they are: at community centers, street fairs, and places of worship. Now that social distancing is requiring cutbacks in large gatherings, opportunities for face-to-face census education are disappearing. Webinars, social media, and advertising can help fill in some of the resulting gaps. But the Census risks not getting the full boost that comes from direct contact between people and trusted community figures.

Other parts of the census process are facing complications, too. The bureau is altering its plans for counting college students, most of whom have had to leave campus, the homeless, and others. As the coronavirus continues to roil daily life, other aspects of the bureau’s approach may have to change, too. For example: if the virus lingers into the door-knocking phase, the bureau will have to figure out how its workers who go out into the field can safely interact with people at their homes while preventing infections from spreading.

More important than gaming out worst-case scenarios, however, is taking steps now to try to prevent them from happening. And self-responding offers an accurate census its best chance. 

The census process is designed to be easy and fast for everyone — filling out the form should take under 10 minutes, no matter the method. There are undoubtedly people and communities who face barriers to participating, such as a lack of internet access or housing instability. All the more reason for those who can respond now to do so, because that will allow the bureau to focus its outreach on the people who need it the most. 

Most critically, responding to the Census is safe. Robust legal protections prohibit the Census Bureau or any other part of the federal government from using census data against the people who supply it. The laws that safeguard the confidentiality of census data make clear that, among other things, the Census Bureau cannot disclose census responses in any way that would personally identify anyone. That means that the bureau cannot share personal information with ICE, the police, or landlords.

The laws also bar other federal agencies from using census data for any nonstatistical purpose, such as enforcing immigration or other laws. Federal employees who attempt to misuse census data would expose themselves to serious legal consequences. 

Congress has steadily strengthened the laws protecting census information since World War II. Because Congress controls the law in this area, the president cannot override it. And a nationwide network of attorneys has pledged to launch legal actions to stop any violation of these confidentiality protections.

Even in the calmest years, the census runs into problems. And it’s impossible to shield the count from everything that could go wrong. But there’s one factor every person can control even during a national health emergency: responding.