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Coronavirus Is Making It Even Harder For The Census To Count Every U.S. Resident

A bus stop with a poster promoting the 2020 census sits empty in New Rochelle, N.Y., a New York City suburb where National Guard members were sent to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
Yuki Iwamura
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A bus stop with a poster promoting the 2020 census sits empty in New Rochelle, N.Y., a New York City suburb where National Guard members were sent to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Updated March 15 at 6:47 p.m. ET

Already saddled with cybersecurity risks, hiring challenges and wavering public trust, the 2020 census now must contend with a growing public health crisis.

NPR has learned that at least one U.S. Census Bureau employee — who was recently hired as a supervisor for a group of door knockers, spokesperson Michael Cook says, and has not interacted with the public on behalf of the bureau — has tested positive for COVID-19 and has been quarantined.

"The employee is following guidance of the Iowa Department of Public Health," Cook said in an email.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the bureau has decided to delay starting its early round of door-knocking by census workers in college towns to April 23. The bureau is also waiting until early April, instead of late March, to begin its outreach effort to send out representatives with computer tablets to help people submit their census responses online. That program, which is expected to cost at least $100 million, is designed to target people in high-traffic locations, from public transit hubs to grocery stores.

The uncertain timeline of the coronavirus outbreaks, however, could further complicate the constitutionally mandated head count of every U.S. resident. Major disruptions could derail the Census Bureau from gathering accurate numbers used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets for the next 10 years. The data also guide the redrawing of voting districts and the distribution of as much as $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for healthcare, schools, roads and other public services to local communities.

Here's what to look for as the count — scheduled to continue through July — rolls out around the country:

The "safest" way to do the census is on your own

Without leaving home, you can take about 10 minutes now to submit a response on behalf of your household — either online at my2020census.gov or over the phone.

If you prefer paper, all households that haven't responded by early April are expected to receive a physical questionnaire in the mail. Some households in areas with low Internet subscription rates, and communities with higher shares of residents over age 65, are set to receive paper forms by March 20.

Those would be "the safest" ways to do the census because they involve little to no person-to-person contact, says John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director who left the agency in 2017.

But the key is to turn in your household's legally required response as soon as possible, Thompson adds. Otherwise, your home address is likely to be added to the list of places for census workers to visit in person beginning May 13. College students living off-campus may get a door knock starting April 23, instead of April 9, Cook, the bureau spokesperson, tells NPR.

"It is critical that households understand that self-responding to the census can help alleviate additional burdens to the Bureau, brought on by COVID-19," Arturo Vargas, a longtime census advocate and CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, says in a written statement.

As of Saturday, 3 million households have submitted an online response to my2020census.gov since it was soft-launched on Monday, according to Cook.

"The Census Bureau is ready for you to do the same," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau, said in a written statement. "If you do, there will be no need for census takers to knock on your door."

Can the census be delayed?

The Census Bureau has been planning to conduct the national head count through July 31. But this week, some Democratic members of Congress have been calling for the counting to be extended.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Adriano Espaillat — both of New York — along with 10 other Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, are urging the bureau to continue the count for an additional three months through October. A separate group of New York lawmakers led by Rep. Yvette Clarke wants the bureau to extend counting at least through September "due to the social disruption caused by COVID-19."

"Social distancing will make enumeration practically impossible during the current allotted time frame," Clarke and the other lawmakers wrote in a letter to Ross.

In response to the coronavirus, some tribal nations are increasing their security by limiting who can enter tribal territories, according to Lycia Maddocks, vice president of external affairs at the National Congress of American Indians.

"Some nations actually have physical guard stands where they can check to see if you're a tribal citizen," Maddocks, a citizen of the Quechan Tribe, said during a news conference Friday.

That could exacerbate the undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives, who had the highest net undercount rate among all racial and ethnic groups in the 2010 census, according to the bureau's estimates. The delivery of census mailings could be delayed and census workers may not be able to travel in Indian Country, where there is often limited or no high-speed Internet service.

The bureau told the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week it's watching to see how many households respond on their own before deciding whether to continue counting past July. The bureau has said it is prepared to delay sending out census workers to specific areas where there is an outbreak.

Still, the bureau is under pressure to meet a critical deadline: Under federal law, the Census Bureau is required to deliver the latest population counts of each state to the president by Dec. 31.

"If they have to delay too long, then they would have to work with the Congress and see if they would pass a new law to extend the deadline for the census," Thompson, the former bureau director, says.

Asked by NPR on Thursday whether the bureau is considering making such a request to Congress, the bureau's current director, Steven Dillingham, said: "I wouldn't take anything off the table, but that's the first mention I've heard of that possibility."

Will the Census Bureau be able to hire and protect a half-million census workers?

The bureau is currently trying to hire and train as many as a half-million census workers to follow up with households that don't fill out a form themselves. These workers are critical to the bureau's strategy for making sure historically undercounted groups — including communities of color, rural residents and immigrants — are included in the country's population count.

"Historically, Black and Latino households, among others, have lower self-response rates, which means the Census Bureau needs enough manpower in the field to collect census information in-person in these communities," Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant who once served as the staff director of the former House oversight subcommittee for the census, says in an email.

The bureau told the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week there has not been a significant drop in staffing since the outbreak.

But Cook, the bureau spokesperson, tells NPR that the bureau learned on Friday that the newly hired census field supervisor, who is now quarantined, tested positive for COVID-19. While that employee, who was expected to be based from home, has not engaged with the public on behalf of the bureau, Cooks says the individual interacted with other recently hired census workers and trainers during a new employee training session.

"The very limited number of employees with whom the individual was in contact have been notified by public health authorities and are in self-quarantine," Cook says in a written statement to NPR. "We will continue to provide support to any and all impacted employees and follow all public health authority guidance."

Cooks adds the bureau is not aware of any "work-related public activity" by the employees in self-quarantine.

The bureau told lawmakers that it's planning to conduct more online training sessions and give workers safety equipment. Cook tells NPR the bureau is working on including social distancing techniques in trainings for door knockers, known as enumerators, and other on-the-ground census workers. Those who feel sick are "strongly encouraged" to stay at home, Cook adds. Enumerators do not get sick leave, but Cook says the bureau is looking into ways to pay them for a work-related injury or illness.

Still, on Friday, the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General, an internal watchdog group for the bureau, asked the agency to provide more details by March 20 on how it plans to conduct the count at "a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty."

Thompson, the former bureau director, worries that trying to convince people to work for the census could be a "particularly sensitive issue," especially among retirees over the age of 60. Given the low employment rate, they've been among the groups targeted by the bureau's recruiting efforts. But now they are at higher risk than younger age groups of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

Kevin Dowd, 62, a retired accountant who applied for a 2020 census job and lives near Milford, Pa., says he recently decided not to attend a training session for prospective enumerators because he was worried about getting sick.

"How many people would be in how big a room?" Dowd says he wondered. "Many people have come back from vacation, from places that have more cases, and so I decided that I didn't need the $16 an hour."

How will the homeless population be counted?

The bureau may decide next week to push back its schedule for counting people experiencing homelessness who are staying in shelters, Cook, the bureau spokesperson, tells NPR. That count is currently set for March 30 through April 1.

The agency is also evaluating whether to delay its April 1 count of homeless people living outside of shelters and in public parks, under bridges and other outdoor locations.

Shelters can choose to have a census worker visit their facility to interview residents and other people who use their services. But rising health concerns about COVID-19 raise two potential challenges, Thompson, the former bureau director, says.

"Workers could be reluctant to go to a place where the homeless receive services," Thompson says. "The places could be reluctant to let people in."

Cook says the agency is trying to contact facilities that had planned for an in-person count to ask whether they can switch to paper forms instead.

In New York City — home to the country's largest homeless population — census workers are not expected to visit city-owned shelters because the local department of social services is transferring records about the shelters' residents to the Census Bureau, Julie Menin, the city's census director, tells NPR.

"What this really does is ensures that every single homeless person in New York City is properly counted," Menin says. "We don't want anyone to be overlooked. We don't want anyone to be invisible."

How will college students, nursing home residents and prisoners be counted?

Cook says the bureau is trying to encourage 68,000 nursing homes, prisons and other group living facilities, excluding college dorms, to send in information about their residents online or by paper, rather than waiting for a census worker to do in-person interviews starting in early April.

Close to 12,900 dorms had chosen earlier this year to have the bureau drop off paper forms for each of their student residents to fill out individually. Given the chaotic situation at many campuses, however, the bureau is reaching out to the administrators to see if they want to change those plans.

The canceling of in-person classes and dorm closures at a growing number of colleges and universities have also raised concerns about whether students who live away from their families' homes will be counted in the right place.

In general, the bureau says all U.S. residents should be counted where they usually live and sleep, even if they're away on Census Day (April 1). This week, the bureau confirmed to NPR that students who have left their college town because of coronavirus should still use their address at school when filling out a census form.

But it's not clear if that guidance will reach students who have scattered around the country, some scrambling to find last-minute housing. In a letter to the Department of Education, the bureau suggests that schools contact their students who usually live off-campus about how to get counted on their own using my2020census.gov.

How will community groups help promote the census?

For decades, the bureau has relied on parades, street festivals and worship services as opportunities for local community leaders to encourage participation in the census.

"The person-to-person contact can be much more effective than a letter in the mail," says Nancy Potok, a former deputy director at the Census Bureau who recently retired as the chief statistician of the U.S.

But the coronavirus is forcing census advocates to pivot away from in-person outreach activities. John Park, executive director of the MinKwon Center — a community group based in Queens, N.Y. — says his organization has been scaling down door-knocking and ramping up texting and phone-banking to encourage households to fill out the census on their own.

"We've created multi-lingual T-shirts with QR codes that link to the census self-response URL, which will let people keep their distance but still access the survey," Park says in an email.

Still, for now, the bureau plans to move forward with its outreach efforts through its "Mobile Questionnaire Assistance" program after delaying the initial rollout from March 30 to April 6, Cook tells NPR. By April 13, census workers are expected to fan out with computer tablets around the country in areas with low census response rates to help people get counted online.

Will the coronavirus shut down census call centers and processing centers for paper forms?

While the bureau hopes most households use my2020census.gov, it's still collecting paper questionnaires, which are a critical backstop in case of any major technical breakdowns with the online census form.

"One area that people tend to overlook is the importance of the processing centers," Potok, the former deputy director of the bureau, says about the two data processing centers in Phoenix and Jeffersonville, Ind., which is across the river from Louisville, Ky., for the 2020 census. "People need to be there to check in the questionnaires."

The centers can receive, separate and scan as many as 30 million paper questionnaires for the 2020 census, according to the bureau's plan for its paper data capture operation. Processing those paper forms will help the bureau figure out where they need to send workers to follow up with unresponsive households.

Deb Stempowski, an assistant director at the bureau who's in charge of operations and schedules for the 2020 census, says if there are any interruptions at one of the sites, the other center could pick up the extra work. Stempowski adds the bureau is tracking paper forms that are mailed back as soon as they enter the mail stream, and the agency is prepared to ask employees to work longer shifts or on the weekends if needed.

"I don't believe that we have an issue if we have one or two people who can no longer support the work in one of the centers," Stempowski said.

Still, there is a risk of both facilities having to close because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic could also complicate staffing at the call centers that are receiving census responses over the phone and answering questions about the count in 13 languages. The 10 census questionnaire assistance centers are located in Tempe, Ariz.; Pueblo, Colo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Tamarac, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; New York City; Blytheville, S.C.; El Paso, Texas; Irving, Texas; and Nashville, Tenn.

"We have a significant contingency budget in place, which enables us to move offices if needed," Cook tells NPR, referring to a $2 billion budget set aside for 2020 census emergencies.

Will the coronavirus force the bureau to rely more heavily on government records to fill in missing information?

If the outbreak ultimately makes it impossible to gather self-reported information from certain households in time, the bureau may have to turn to alternatives to fill in the gaps, including a cache of existing government records from other federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service.

"It is possible that administrative records will have to enumerate a much larger share of the population as the virus spreads," Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director who oversaw the 2000 count, wrote in an op-ed this week in The New York Times.

Some critics worry that relying on records to complete demographic profiles of certain households may not produce accurate census information.

"We find these records work well in matching records for the White and higher-income populations but racial/ethnic minorities, lower-income persons, and other HTC populations are likely to be missed," members of a working group of Census Bureau researchers and advisors to the bureau wrote in a 2016 report.

Before the outbreak, the bureau estimated that about 7.9 million households — or just over 5% of the around 147 million home addresses it's planning to include in the 2020 census — will be counted using administrative records, according to a regulatory document filed in January with the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Bureau officials said in the document that if the bureau "does not have confidence" in the records for an unresponsive household because of missing or inconsistent data, they plan to continue sending census workers to knock on the door.

According to the bureau's plans, workers are generally supposed to try to gather information in person in up to six days in total. At a time of outbreak, however, it's hard to say how many visits will actually be possible later this year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 15, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said that because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Census Bureau suggested in a letter that colleges and universities contact their students about how to get counted for the 2020 census online on their own. It would have been more accurate to say that suggestion was in regards only to students who usually live off campus. An earlier version also said that census workers are generally supposed to try to gather information from unresponsive households within six days. It would have been more accurate to say that workers generally have up to six days in total because the days do not have to be in consecutive order.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.

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