2020 Census Counting on Everyone’s Help Amid Challenges

A depiction of the United States comprised of different peopleHow many challenges does the 2020 U.S. Census face to be a success? Let Robert Gradeck count the ways.

The American public’s trust of government. The legal battle over the citizenship-related question. The new online response option amid disparities on computer literacy and internet access. The vast disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robert GradeckApril 1 is Census Day, the date by which every home should have received an invitation to participate. When you respond, you’ll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of this date—except for college students who had to move home. Add one more twist.

During the last national census in 2010, about three out of four Americans responded by mail to the census, a significant increase compared to 67% in 2000. Gradeck, from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social & Urban Research (UCSUR), said there are too many variables to predict the 2020 census response.

"I couldn’t possibly predict what the response will look like locally in the middle of the pandemic. I hope we can approach what we did in 2010, but who knows?” said Gradeck, project director for the Urban & Regional Analysis Program and the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, both within Pitt’s UCSUR.

He added: “I would think for this new online response survey to be considered successful, this year’s response rate would have to at least match the 2010 rate.”

First year for online option

Started in 1790, the census is the U.S. government’s way of counting the population on all levels, from states to counties to municipalities. However, for the first time this year, responders can complete the census online, in addition to doing so by phone or mail.

Through March 31, more than 5 million have responded online. Gradeck says it remains to be seen just how well the digital survey form will ultimately perform, noting concerns about data privacy and digital literacy.

“There has been some concern with older populations and the online survey, such as ‘Will they have adequate internet access?’ or ‘Will they be able to navigate the census easily?’” he said. “Others expected to be difficult to count include families with children, people of color and people who move often or lack stability in their housing situation.”

Gradeck also anticipates more people staying away from the census altogether due to increasing distrust in the federal government. In April 2010, public trust in government was at 22%, according to a Pew Research Center study. The same study says that number decreased to 17% in March 2019.

Further fueling that distrust, Gradeck said, was an early draft of the 2020 Census had a question asking for people’s citizenship status. The Supreme Court however blocked the question from appearing on the census in a 2019 ruling.

“Even though that question was blocked, the damage is done,” he said. “Immigrants who came into this country over the past several years may be afraid of even responding to the census now.”

Coronavirus concerns

One new concern involves the spread of COVID-19 and its impact. The Census Bureau is adjusting its schedule for in-person neighborhood canvassing and is working with service providers and institutional living facilities administrators in counting their residents without compromising the health and well-being of people living in them.

However, neglecting to respond to the census or reporting incorrect information could have longterm consequences for the regions affected.

“It could lead to areas losing representation and federal funding for health care allocated based on population,” Gradeck said. “The census is also used to determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress and to redraw district boundaries.”

Counting college students

While millions of college students had to return home due to the pandemic, they should fill out the census with their college address for the semester— not their family address, Gradeck noted, since it’s where they normally would live and sleep most of the time.

The Census Bureau also notified colleges and universities to seek their help with this reporting through its Group Quarters Operation, which counts all students living in university-owned housing.

This will avoid impact on population totals in the city, leading to a loss of political representation and federal funding, Gradeck said, adding it will be interesting to see how students respond with the new digital option.

“Students don’t use mail as often as older populations,” he said. “Shopping and paying bills can be done online nowadays and younger populations utilize that aspect more.”

For more information on the census, including important dates and ways to respond, visit www.2020census.gov.