Skip Navigation
Analysis

You Can Protect the Census from the Coronavirus

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

Last Updated: March 27, 2020
Published: March 27, 2020

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.