There is no recent precedent for a pandemic as far reaching and fast spreading as the COVID-19 virus. The timing of this crisis could not be worse for the once-in-a-decade census. The spread of the virus is ramping up concurrently with critical 2020 Decennial Census data collection—threatening its viability altogether.
We know that COVID-19 testing in the US has proven inadequate, and community spread has now taken hold. The virus has spread to 45 of 50 states as of March 12, 2020, and it’s reported to be 10 times more lethal than influenza and much more contagious.
Public health measures include social distancing, meaning that gatherings of people are being cancelled daily so people can minimize proximity to others. Remote work and restricted travel are now in effect for many companies and organizations, including the Urban Institute.
Although the decennial census is mandated by the Constitution, the extreme challenges raised by the pandemic may warrant an unprecedented delay to protect the census’s accuracy. These challenges include:
Difficulty finding and retaining enumerators
The US Census Bureau relies on about half a million enumerators—the people who knock on the doors of those who do not respond to the census on their own—to collect data for millions of American households.
These hiring efforts are so large that they produce spikes in national employment estimates every decade. But the labor market in 2019 and 2020 has been historically tight, and the Census Bureau has fallen short of its applicant goals for the 2020 Census. Older workers are often a key group from which enumerators are recruited—the age group most at risk for complications from the coronavirus.
There are doubts that younger people will want to go door-to-door, never mind those who are older and at risk. This raises questions about whether the Census Bureau will be able to recruit and retain the enumerators they need to interview people in-person from mid-May through mid-August this year.
And for those hoping a warmer season might allow COVID-19 to abate, note that both South America and Australia are suffering summertime coronavirus outbreaks, with Australia in the midst of its second-hottest summer ever.
Making hard-to-count populations even harder to count
Last year, we found the 2020 Census was already facing many unprecedented threats and estimated projections of miscounts that suggest 2020 will be of lower quality than the 2010 Census, with an overall undercount of up to four million people. But the threat of a global pandemic wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
Clearly the coronavirus outbreak is now the biggest threat to the 2020 Census, although it is not unprecedented (PDF). Referencing the Spanish Flu outbreak a century ago, a report on the 1920 Decennial Census stated, “Because of… the almost complete cessation of immigration in 1914, and to a less extent to the ravages of the influenza pandemic and the effects of the war, many cities and towns have been disappointed with the census, and have filed protests questioning their accuracy.”
The miscounts we projected last June could pale in comparison with the impact of the virus. Finally, there is the issue of a fair an accurate census.
Under the current Census Bureau operational plan (PDF), the majority of households would self-respond to the 2020 Census via web or mail. However, those returns represent the easy-to-count populations who would respond to any census.
That leaves the historically hard-to-count (PDF) populations—low-income households, racial and ethnic non-white populations, immigrants, non-English speakers, the homeless—who are the likeliest to be missed, especially if the coronavirus limits door-to-door canvassing and outreach.
This means the historical undercounting of groups typically missed—Black and African American, Latinx, Asian, and Native American populations, as well as young children—will be supercharged. This could result in the usual near-accurate or overcounting of the easy-to-count folks and an even higher rate of undercounting of the populations typically missed.
This would create a worst-case scenario when it comes to political representation and allocation of federal resources: states and communities with higher concentrations of hard-to-count populations (e.g., Latinx, African American, and immigrant populations) get less than they deserve, while others get more than they deserve. And the 2020 counts would then be baked in to population projections used to calibrate federal statistics and surveys, thus informing federal funds allocations and eligibility thresholds for the next 10 years.
Lacking planning or protocols for conducting the census during a pandemic
Indeed, the decennial census may proceed despite the ongoing epidemic. But is that in the public interest? Even if special protocols were developed to stand six feet from doorways, enumerators would not be free of risk.
Can or would the Census Bureau guarantee that all of its staff are virus free? If it cannot, what is the most responsible thing to do?
Should local Complete Count Committees and community-based organizations curtail activities to “get out the count” (GOTC)? This includes encouraging hard-to-count people to answer the census and visit common spaces like libraries, schools, stores, malls, and church events.
GOTC activities also include making communal computers available in these locations for online census self-response. But these activities may be suspended during a local virus outbreak. And even absent a local outbreak, the public may avoid such venues to reduce their personal risk.
What happens next?
It may be well past time to consider the implications of the coronavirus on the execution of our 2020 Census and what that means for our democracy. We, the people, deserve accurate counts of our population.
Should the census be postponed? Extended? Canceled? Postponing may be a particularly painful option because the census forms have been mailed and hundreds of thousands of enumerators have been or are being hired. Extending the period for response into the fall or winter is an easier pill to swallow, but that assumes the epidemic will abate relatively quickly and basically kicks the can down the road, exacerbating data quality the further we get from Census Day.
Canceling is an option that belies the Constitution, but it may be our only option if public safety cannot be protected. Regardless of the option, it is hard to imagine that the 2020 Census could simply go on as scheduled. Some hard decisions face the US Census Bureau. The health of our democracy may be at stake.