COVID-19 Challenges the Census
Author: Summer Allen
Posted: March 24, 2020

The goal for the 2020 Census is to count every single person living in the United States. But now that people are stuck at home and the nation’s attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, is the census in trouble?

The census, which is conducted every 10 years, is vitally important. It determines how billions of dollars of federal funds are spent each year on hospitals, schools, roads, and other resources. Census information is also used to inform public policy, determine how many U.S. House of Representative seats are assigned to each state and to draw congressional and state legislative districts. 

The Census Bureau kicked off the 2020 Census by sending out self-response forms in early March. But just as people began filling out their census forms, the U.S. began shutting down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. As of now about half of all Americans are being urged to stay home. This may be a concern when it comes to the census. 

Normally, at this point in March there would be public events promoting the census and a big publicity push.

“Right now, in the last week of March, the census should be the biggest national news story there is,” says Charles Rynerson, interim director of Portland State University’s Population Research Center. “Obviously, that is not currently happening so that’s a concern.”

The pandemic is also delaying visits by census workers to individual households. Those were supposed to start in early May and end in July but are now slated to begin at the end of May and end in the middle of August. 

“But those dates seem optimistic to me,” says Rynerson. 

One date that hasn’t been pushed back yet is the date the count is to be sent to the President: December 31, 2020. Title 13 of the United States Code says that the population of each state has to be delivered to the president by nine months after the census date. 

“Congress can change that,” says Rynerson. “But, of course, that’s a last resort that could have implications for the work that states do to draw congressional and other political districts.”

The turnout question

The big question is whether the pandemic will decrease turnout for the census. So called “hard to count populations” already make up a large share of the public. These groups include renters, children under age five, people of color and people in unstable living situations. 

The Census Bureau had planned to spend three days in April counting people experiencing homelessness and that has been pushed out a month. 

“It's hard enough to count the homeless,” says Rynerson. “Census takers have to work a lot with local people who are knowledgeable about where homeless people might be, but they might not be in the same place due to the virus.”

He also notes that counting college students will be harder than in previous years now that many of them have been sent home. People are supposed to be counted where they live most of the time and for many college students that would be on campus, but now they’re not there. 

“I think universities are scrambling to try to figure out how to count people,” Rynerson says. 

In the absence of public events and much media attention, the Census Bureau and other organizations are ramping up online outreach efforts. For example, the nonprofit We Count Oregon had originally planned on hosting several big in-person events. Now they’ve pivoted to online advertising and events.

“Maybe they’ll reach even more people,” says Rynerson. 

A silver lining

One silver lining is that the 2020 Census is the first census that can be completed online, making it easier than ever before for many Americans to do it from home. The census can also be filled over the phone or by mail. 

The best thing that you can do to help with census efforts is to fill out your census form as soon as you can and to encourage others to do so, too. 

“The more people who do that the better, both for safety and for saving the federal government money,” says Rynerson. 

If more people respond to the census themselves, less follow up is required and that lowers the cost. Responding early also helps the Census Bureau meet its December 31st deadline. As of March 24th, nearly a quarter of households had already submitted their census forms. You can see current response rates by state on the Census Bureau’s Response Rate Map. 

It is quick and easy to fill out your census form online.

“If you're home and at your computer, it takes less than 10 minutes to fill out the census,” says Rynerson. “And you don't have to worry about touching paper or or going to the mailbox.”