With 2020 Census Looming, Governments Face Many Unknowns

Uncertainties about resources, and a question about residents' citizenship status, are making localities more nervous than usual about not counting people.
by | November 2018
Low-income neighborhoods, rural regions and those with large concentrations of minority groups often fail to respond to Census questionnaires. (Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Local governments are always concerned about Census undercounts. If all their residents don’t show up in the official tallies, they can lose political power in legislatures and Congress and millions in federal funding grants. This year, there are a couple of reasons localities are more nervous than usual.

The first has gotten a lot of attention. A question about citizenship that the Trump administration wants to add to the Census form has communities worried that immigrants and refugees will be much less likely to participate. That question is being challenged in court, but local governments are already thinking about ways to reassure residents that their citizenship response won’t be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cities are also seeking clarity from the Census Bureau about whether forms on which the citizenship question is left blank will be counted anyway.

The other issue is manpower. The Census is a massive undertaking, with somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million people hired to help. Back in 2010, the Census Bureau had a hard time filling those slots. That was with an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent. Now, it’s under 4 percent. Cities and states are working with local institutions to figure out how they can assist the feds in their recruiting process.

At this early stage, it’s all about getting prepared. The National League of Cities (NLC) is recommending that its members make sure their master address files are up to date. If a city has grown over the course of the decade, that includes adding the addresses of new buildings and residences to the right databases. Some cities are sending out teams with clipboards, writing down the addresses of backyard dwellings and other hard-to-spot housing units. “One of the easiest ways not to get counted is for the Census Bureau not to know where you live,” says Alex Jones, manager of NLC’s local democracy initiative.

This will be the first true digital Census. Respondents will be able to fill out forms online by using a unique identifying number they’ll receive in the mail. Cities and counties will be talking with managers of libraries, post offices and other public buildings about installing kiosks for filing internet responses.

Even now, not everyone has a computer or smartphone. There are always “hard-to-reach” communities with which local governments have to work hardest to ensure accurate counts. Salt Lake City is used to that, with a majority of residences occupied by renters and 20 percent of the population living in poverty. The city is hiring a full-time coordinator to make sure agencies are working together when it comes to operations and outreach efforts.

Salt Lake and other cities in Utah always feel shortchanged, having found that Mormon missionaries living overseas at the time of the Census get overlooked. Today’s more diverse population will present new challenges, especially if there’s a citizenship question, but at root the goals remain the same. “From our standpoint, there’s very little difference,” says Matthew Rojas, Salt Lake City’s communications director. “Everyone should be counted, whether you’re a missionary serving on a mission or an immigrant living in Salt Lake City.”