April 1, 2020 is Census Day. The federal government has been planning for this day, and the rollout of invitation that preceded it, for the past decade. But no one could have foreseen at the time that our government would undertake its decennial census at the exact moment of a public health crisis.
2020 is the first year people can complete the census online.
In some ways, we’re more prepared for this than ever before. 2020 is the first year people can complete the census online, and with many people now at home due to government recommendations that they practice social distancing, going online to complete the form is a relatively simple and straightforward task.
But as with nearly every other system, we are concerned with how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact vulnerable and marginalized people’s ability to participate in the census, and how this will impact important outreach efforts that now must undergo a fast pivot.
April 1, 2020 is Census Day.
How will this impact older adults?
We know that older adults have faced higher death rates due to COVID-19 than other age groups, and there are strong social distancing recommendations for that group. Given that, there is good news and bad news for older adult census participation.
The bad news:
- Older adults are the least likely age group to be comfortable completing the census online – 56 percent of people age 65 and older prefer a paper form to an online form.
- Older adults may need help completing the census, and many of their usual avenues for getting that assistance (e.g.: libraries, senior centers, social service agencies) may be closed, have limited hours or be unsafe for them to visit.
All households that don’t respond online by April will receive a paper questionnaire in the mail.
The good news:
- All households that don’t respond online by April will receive a paper questionnaire in the mail. So if older adults don’t respond to the invitation to complete the census online, they can still respond via a paper form.
- Older adults are the most self-motivated age cohort when it comes to completing the census (similar to other forms of civic engagement, like voting). However, it is still important to remove barriers for older adults, especially those who are low-income, disabled, have literacy challenges or for whom English is not their first language.
How will this impact non-English speakers?
Immigrants, especially those with language barriers, are among the hardest-to-count populations. These groups may experience multiple barriers to being counted in the census, including distrust of government, language barriers, concerns about confidentiality and lack of familiarity with or awareness of the census.
It is still important to remove barriers for older adults, especially those who are low-income, disabled, have literacy challenges or for whom English is not their first language.
For non-English speakers, a key part of census outreach work has been spearheaded by local organizations who are trusted by those groups, and are advocates for why the census is important. One of the most effective ways to reach these individuals and encourage census participation is by personal interaction with trusted individuals. But social distancing is likely to amplify isolation and make these individuals even more difficult to reach.
Additionally, with widespread closures of libraries and other community resource centers, it may be more difficult for people to access language assistance if they need it. The U.S. Census Bureau does make many language resources available, however, and many of them are referenced in the mailings that each household received from the bureau.
The U.S. Census Bureau does make many language resources available.
How will this impact children?
Children, especially those under age five, have historically been one of the most undercounted groups in the census. Since parents or guardians are responsible for accounting for all children in their households on their census forms, this really comes down to barriers that parents may face completing and understanding the census themselves.
If parents of young children are facing increased burdens or pressures due to loss of employment or child care, this could impact their ability to participate in the census.
If parents of young children are facing increased burdens or pressures due to loss of employment or child care, this could impact their ability to participate in the census, especially if they don’t understand all of the ways the census count will impact their families in the future.
How will this impact college students?
College students are often under-counted due to confusion about the residence at which they should be counted. Because many campuses have closed to prevent spread of COVID-19, there may be additional confusion leading to an under-count of college students in the city where they attend college. The official guidance from the U.S. Census Bureau is that college students should be counted at their place of usual residence as of April 1. That means that even if they have gone home to stay with parents during this time, they should be counted in the census at their usual residence. For students living in dorms, they will be counted as part of the Group Quarters Operation, but for students living in off-campus housing, outreach and information-sharing about how to complete the census will be very important.
How will this impact census workers?
The U.S. Census Bureau has released an official statement on plans to suspend their field operations to help slow the spread of COVID-19. At this point, they have said they will suspend those operations until April 1. Early field operations include enumeration of homeless people in shelters and tent communities, college students on campuses, and other counts of people living in group quarters.
The bureau strongly encourages as many people as possible to respond online, by phone or by mail, in order to avoid needing an in-person visit from a census taker. It is still unclear how the public health crisis will impact plans for door-to-door follow-ups with households who don’t self-respond, as those outreach efforts weren’t slated to begin until May.
How you can help:
- If you serve any of the populations mentioned above, consider including some facts about the census in your next newsletter, robo-call, or other communication with individuals you serve. https://2020census.gov/ is a great source of information, and it has resources and graphics that you can use in your outreach efforts, including resources that target specific populations.
- Share the U.S. Census Bureau’s official phone number that people can call for assistance or to complete the census via phone: 1-844-330-2020.
- Consider ramping up social media and other forms of virtual engagement to share information about the census.
- Help bust myths. One common myth right now is that completing the census will be tied to eligibility for economic stimulus money related to COVID-19. The U.S. Census Bureau addresses rumors and myths here.
- Complete the census yourself! Each and every one of us needs to be counted!