The blog of the Urban Institute
March 30, 2020

Unpredictable Residency during the COVID-19 Pandemic Spells Trouble for the 2020 Census Count

Social distancing measures to curtail the community spread of COVID-19 have upended daily life. Just before lockdowns were implemented across the country, there was tremendous movement and migration of people relocating to different residences to shelter in place. This makes sense for the people involved but could be disastrous for the communities they fled and the final 2020 Census counts.

Pandemic-based migration undermines an accurate count

The 2020 Census, like most data collected by the US Census Bureau, is residence based. In the years leading up to 2020, the US Census Bureau worked diligently on the quality of the Master Address File, or the catalog of all residential addresses in the country. Staff account for newly built housing developments and buildings, apartment units or accessory dwelling units that are used as permanent residences, and the demolition of homes and apartments in the past decade. Census materials are sent to an address, rather than a person.

Most residences across America have already received their 2020 Census invitation. Whether completed online, by paper, by phone, or in person, the first official question on the 2020 Census questionnaire is “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?” Households are expected to answer this based on the concept of “usual residence,” or the place where a person lives and sleeps most of the time.

Despite written guidance provided on the 2020 Census on how to answer this question, doing so may be wrought with complexities and nuance from the pandemic.

First, research reveals that respondents do not often read questionnaire instructions; they dive in and start answering. With many people scrambling to other counties, cities, and states to hunker down for the long haul with loved ones, this will lead to incorrect counts when people are counted at temporary addresses.

Second, for many, the concept of “usual residence” has little relevance in the uncertainty unfolding during the COVID-19 pandemic. What if your temporary address becomes your permanent address? What does “usual residence” mean during a global epidemic that could stretch for 18 months or more? And perhaps more importantly, what should it mean?

Finally, there is the added complication of census operational delays (PDF). Self-response to the 2020 Census has been extended into August, as have the nonresponse follow-up efforts, when enumerators knock on the doors of those who haven’t yet answered the census. Additional delays seem unavoidable. The longer the delay, the more time there is for people who have not yet completed a census form to realize their temporary plan has evolved into a state of permanence.

In the past month, the media has covered stories of people being temporarily displaced or voluntarily leaving their “usual residences.” Wealthy New York City residents are staying in their vacation homes indefinitely. Parents who share custody of children are modifying living arrangements. Young adults are finding themselves suddenly cohabiting with partners or moving back home with their parents. College-age young adults have returned home after college campuses have closed for the semester and possibly for longer. Older adults are moving into elderly relatives’ homes to support them. Many renters may be at risk of displacement because of lost income—despite a freeze on evictions and foreclosures—because this policy applies to just a fraction of rental properties.

Transitional housing situations pose risks to the census and communities. If New York City residents are fleeing, this could mean a lower population count and less funding over the next decade, which would be devastating to the city.

What can the US Census Bureau do?

The US Census Bureau must act. It will need more processing time to identify and remove duplicates in the returns—a phenomenon that occurs regardless of a pandemic—and will need to flag potential population spikes in certain communities.

It may need to revisit residency rules to decide how to handle cases where the same person is counted in two different places, if these duplicates can be detected.

The Census Bureau should issue immediate additional guidance about how households should respond in this new era, when “usual residence” on April 1, 2020 is fuzzy and unclear. A YouTube video exists for college students living outside campus, but much more could be done.

The December 2020 deadline for delivering final counts should be postponed for these reasons and more.

Unfortunately, communities face a zero-sum game for decennial population counts. Communities that gain population in 2020 because of the pandemic will reap the benefits of better funding and representation for the next decade. Communities with population loss will receive less than they deserve.

Every census count brings new challenges, some of which lead to miscounts that get brought to and battled over in court. Without a proactive approach to the 2020 Census that addresses these residency questions, the COVID-19 pandemic may be unintentionally inviting communities to wage contentious court battles over the accuracy of the count for years to come.

In this photo illustration, US Census 2020 materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online since field work has been suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo Illustration by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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