Feb 26, 2020 - Politics & Policy

This year's census may be the toughest count yet

Illustration of people standing in a line with one person as a silhouette.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Community leaders are concerned that historically hard-to-count residents will be even harder to count in this year's census, thanks to technological hurdles and increased distrust in government.

Why it matters: The census — which will count more than 330 million people this year — determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding gets allocated across state and local governments. Inaccurate counts mean that communities don't get their fair share of those dollars.

What's happening: Nearly all adults (95%) have heard of the census, and 78% say they'll definitely or probably submit a census form, per a recent Pew Research survey.

Yes but: A sizable number of people aren't sure how to participate (i.e., they don't know it can be completed online), or they're mistaken about what information will be collected.

  • For example, only 17% of adults answered correctly that a citizenship question is not on the 2020 census.
  • 40% of adults under 30 say they don't know much about it, per Pew — not a surprise as it's the first time they'll be completing it as an adult.

Factors complicating this year's count:

  1. Distrust in government: About one-third say a reason they may not respond is that the census asks for too much personal information, per Pew. Another third says they don't trust the government to use their information properly.
  2. Rise of disinformation: Fears could be stoked by the spread of disinformation meant to reduce response rates among certain groups, per a report by Harvard's Shorenstein Center. For example, a photo of a fake census form shared online with a question asking for a Social Security Number and citizenship status can spook residents.
  3. Digital deserts: The biggest change this year is the ability to fill out census forms online. While this is convenient for some, it adds a hurdle for others who do not have internet access or who are not proficient online.
  4. Limited resources: Census Bureau budget constraints mean there are fewer on-the-ground workers knocking on doors. This leaves it up to cities and towns to encourage participation.

New York City, which had lower-than-expected response rates in the past two surveys, is spending $40 million on outreach and education materials and has provided $19 million in grants to 157 trusted community organizations to combat disinformation, particularly around the citizen question, said NYC census director Julie Menin.

  • 110 libraries will have computer terminals and serve as service centers.
  • The top undercounted segment of the city's population is children under 5, along with African Americans and the Orthodox Jewish population, she said.

The National League of Cities is providing materials that local officials can customize for their own communities, and it's working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide $1.6 million in grants to help cities with the process.

The good news: "I've never seen elected officials taking the census so seriously," said Clarence Anthony, CEO of the National League of Cities. "It seems like there’s a greater commitment to reach the historically hard-to-count residents."

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