The Census Bureau Wasn’t Counting on the Coronavirus

Up on the 18th floor of a federal building in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the census takers are getting ready. On the phone, a receptionist recites a job description to what could be a potential new recruit in Spanish and English. Administrators prepare the postcards that will soon be mailed to every household in the city, asking people to respond to the 2020 census questionnaire online or by mail.

For now, much of the work is happening behind closed doors. But starting on March 30, enumerators will fan out to count the city’s homeless population. And after the nationwide census kickoff in April, these enumerators will start knocking on the doors of households that didn’t respond to their postcards, beginning in May.

Census takers play a critical role in maintaining the health of American democracy. Door-to-door census count operations, however, could run afoul of a different imperative: keeping away from the novel coronavirus.

As more cases of COVID-19 are reported in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has recommended that people who may have been exposed to the virus think hard about limiting their interactions with other people, by staying home from work, canceling travel plans and steering clear of public transit. But when the job is counting people — or galvanizing them to fill out forms — avoiding contact with the public isn’t always an option.

The Census Bureau has issued an assurance that they’re working with health authorities at the federal, state and local level to prepare for the spread of disease. “Operations for the 2020 Census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date,” said Steven Dillingham, the bureau’s director, in a statement.

On the West Coast, there is reason to act urgently. In Washington state, nine people have died so far due to the virus. There are more than 40 reported cases in California, including eleven in Santa Clara county and one in Alameda County. San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency on February 25, saying “we need to allocate more resources to make sure we are prepared.”

Seattle, which was home to the first U.S. death from the coronavirus, hasn’t been given official instructions from the Census Bureau related to the coronavirus, says Kelsey Nyland, a communications associate for the mayor’s office. “Since we haven’t received any guidance from the bureau or CDC on how COVID could — if at all — affect census outreach, we’re just going to continue to do the work we’re doing,” she said.

In the San Francisco census office, workers were taking their own precautions. A census employee (who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media) gestured at some hand sanitizer when asked about whether the bureau had provided information or instructions about how the coronavirus could affect canvassing efforts. In an email seen by CityLab, Los Angeles Regional Census Center deputy regional director Thomas Szabla sent California census officers two CDC pamphlets with details on COVID-19 and how to stem the spread of infection. The same fliers are posted in the elevators of the federal building where the San Francisco census office is located.

“We are beginning to provide some basic information on the Coronavirus and other related health information,” Szabla wrote in the email. “I know a lot of people are starting to get nervous about this, but we need everyone to stay levelheaded about this and do our best to practice good sanitary habits.” The Census Bureau did not respond to follow-up questions from CityLab about virus preparation efforts.

Could pandemic anxiety disrupt the 2020 census, which decides the apportionment of seats in Congress and guides the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds? In the short term, it could certainly complicate the U.S. Census Bureau’s recruitment efforts, says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Already, the low unemployment rate has made hiring enumerators harder. “They might have to take some extra measures to make sure that the census takers feel they’re safe,” he said.

The risk that the virus represents to the 2020 survey extends beyond these door-to-door follow-up counts, however. A successful census relies on the efforts of community associations, faith-based organizations, and other groups to muster a complete count. In Seattle, for example, this work involves extensive community outreach at parks and libraries as well as partnerships with local ethnic newspapers and other organizations. “We’ve already done the groundwork to make sure people have the info that they need,” Nyland said.

Thousands of complete-count committees across the country are already at work to bolster the count. Some of these committees serve very specific, localized, hard-to-count communities, whom the census might not otherwise reach. A pandemic might elevate that risk of being missed. In New York, where authorities announced a second confirmed coronavirus case on Tuesday morning, a group called LatinoJustice canceled a census rollout event scheduled for this week, according to The City.

States with large proportions of hard-to-count populations — racial and ethnic minorities, low-income families, respondents with low education levels, and other sociodemographic groups — are already facing an almost-certain undercount. According to projections from the Urban Institute, California, New York, and Texas face significant undercounts even in a best-case scenario. In the highest-risk scenario, every state would suffer an undercount except Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. And that Urban Institute projection didn’t take into account a global pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a century.

That last pandemic was the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 to 1920, which managed to wreak havoc on the 1920 census. A post-hoc report conducted by the director of the census noted that the full count was delayed by about five months, and some areas had to be canvassed again. The war in Europe and Spanish flu at home contributed to a series of nationalist laws restricting immigration; the 1920 census report casts these factors as responsible for the lowest rate of population growth in the nation’s history.

A lot has changed in the past 100 years, and the census has evolved accordingly: 2020 marks the first year that the Census Bureau is enabling people to respond to the questionnaire online. While the internet could be a liability when it comes to access or trust in the census (especially among hard-to-count communities), a digital census is nevertheless something people can complete even if the coronavirus outbreak grows much worse.

“It’s fortunate this time in that the census is counting on a lot of people to give their responses on the internet, which of course doesn’t involve a face-to-face interaction with a census taker,” said Frey. “They’ve tried very hard to make sure the internet system is pervasive, and that it works.”

For example, starting March 12, Seattle-area libraries will have computers available to all to fill out their census forms, regardless of whether they have a library card, says Nyland.

“If a public health crisis alters the bureau’s plans for the census, it could make it even harder to count some communities,” said Beth Lynk, the campaign director of Census Counts, a group housed under the Leadership Conference Education Fund that is working with organizations to help conduct a fair and accurate census. “We are already working with our partners to fight against xenophobia affecting hard-to-reach communities and, in the event of a public health crisis, are poised to strategically redirect resources and alter our outreach plans.”

A pandemic is just one of multiple menaces that census-watchers are tracking. The U.S. Supreme Court decided last summer that the census won’t include the question about citizenship that the Trump Administration was determined to insert, but experts fear that the damage to the count’s reputation with mixed-status or undocumented households was already done.

Already, scammers and other opportunists — including the GOP — are using fake mailers and phishing attacks to try to pry sensitive data or campaign contributions from unwary respondents. Misinformation about the coronavirus could also hurt the census, even if the outbreak is less severe than anticipated. With both the census and the pandemic response, the time to prepare for the worst-case scenario is before the crisis begins.

Local leaders who have the most to lose from a bungled census have been planning for the upcoming count for years. The 2020 census faces especially difficult odds. In addition to the usual funding shortfalls, this survey has weathered an unprecedented attempt to weaponize the count politically, and it still remains to be seen how the mostly untested technology will fare. Some census takers are already reporting frustrations using the Census Bureau’s new smartphone app in the field.

“Obviously, the operational phase of the census is a time when you want everything to go right, and this wild card is going to threaten that,” said Margo Anderson, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of The American Census: A Social History. But the census always has to contend with plagues and perils, both natural and manmade: Just this week, tornadoes ripped through Tennessee, destroying dozens of homes that will need to be accounted for somehow this spring. They’ll adjust, she trusts — they always do.

“If you look at any news story in any decade, there are always stories of census offices that burn down. I think the 1850 census schedules from California were lost at sea,” she said. “The Census Bureau right now is likely working on this as we speak. They always have fallback positions.”

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