2020 Census in the Pandemic Briefing Offers a Dose of Reality

By PAA Web posted 07-13-2020 13:22


July 9, 2020—Disruptions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic have forced the Census Bureau to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, making counting certain segments of the population more challenging, including college students and American Indians/Alaska Natives.  This was the central take-away of a recent webinar briefing sponsored by PAA entitled, Lost Our Census? Getting an Accurate 2020 Count during the COVID Pandemic.

Albert Fontenot Jr., Associate Director of Decennial Census Programs at the U.S. Census Bureau, led off the briefing with a comprehensive overview of the impact of the delays brought on by the pandemic, steps taken by the Bureau to adjust operations and restart the enumeration, and revised targets for delivering counts to the States and Congress. Fontenot noted that one unheralded success of the 2020 Census is the Internet response rate, which has topped 80% of respondents—with no interruptions in service or system crashes. The 2020 Census is the first to offer an online response option.

Dr. C. Matthew Snipp (Stanford U.) focused on the impact of COVID on American Indians and Native Alaskans, showing how these populations have the highest rates of infection and hospitalizations, and also the lowest response rates. Of the 10 largest reservations, all but two had response rates under 18% and half registered in single digits. The Navajo nation, which has been devastated by COVID, currently has a response rate of only 4%. Snipp stressed the critical importance of authorizing the Census Bureau’s request to extend the 2020 Census operational deadline to ensure a robust Non-Response Follow Up (NRFU) Operation is conducted in tribal lands.

Census Bag on the MoveCollege students, meanwhile, present yet a different challenge, according to Dr. Dudley Poston of Texas A & M University. The nationwide shutdown that began in mid-March forced most college students to abandon their campuses just as Census forms were hitting their mailboxes. The Census Bureau has negotiated with colleges and universities to gain access and expand the use of administrative records to enumerate students in group quarters—dorms and other on-campus housing. Off-campus residents present a much more difficult set of issues, given the transient nature of student residences, and Poston estimates that up to 4 million students could be missed unless steps are taken during the extended timeline to enumerate this population.

The briefing was moderated by Dr. Connie Citro, senior advisor and director emerita of the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT). Dr. Citro, a nationally recognized expert on federal statistics, provided valuable context and facilitated a robust question and answer portion. Citro reminded the audience that the last time the Census Bureau was faced with having to extend statutory deadlines for delivering the final count was for the 1920 Census. The reason: disruptions caused by the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.

View the slides.
View the recording.

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