Census Operations During COVID-19

April 1st is Census Day—an important marker for reporting where you live as of April 1, 2020, for the 2020 Decennial Census.

The census, which includes a population count, has real consequences for how seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned, and how congressional districts are divided. The census also provides vital data for the nation. The data that the census collects provides information to guide decisions affecting funding for hospitals, schools, and roads. Further, businesses use census data to market new services and products and to tailor existing ones to demographic changes.

While the 2020 Decennial Census kicked off in January, concerns about COVID-19 have stalled operations.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss the effects of COVID-19 on census operations, as well as additional challenges the 2020 Census faces. 

COVID-19 and the 2020 Census

The Census Bureau (Bureau) is required by law to finish the 2020 Census and deliver the count of the population to the President by December 31, 2020. At the same time, the Bureau must address the risks presented by the global spread of COVID-19.

On March 18, the Bureau announced it would suspend field operations and hiring, onboarding, and training of census workers until April 1 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 28, the Bureau further suspended these operations until April 15.

The Bureau also announced steps it was taking to adjust or extend certain operations because of the risks of COVID-19. For example:

  • The Bureau is extending the time period that households can “self-respond” online, by phone, or by mail.
  • The Bureau is delaying its Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program, which will assist people with responding online at places such as grocery stores and community centers. The Bureau had planned to start these efforts in late March, but has delayed until mid-April.
  • The Bureau has also delayed its visits to non-responding households to collect census data. In past years, census employees have gone door-to-door to interview folks who have not completed their questionnaires. According to the Bureau, this effort will now start in late May.
  • Because many colleges and universities are temporarily closed, the Bureau has said it would work with schools to ensure that college students are counted at their school. Students who live off campus were reminded to count those locations as their residences even if they are temporarily living elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bureau said these delays and other changes would result in extending the deadline for collecting responses from July 31 to August 14. According to the Bureau, this revised date should still allow the Bureau to deliver the population count to the President on time.  

Additional Census challenges

We added the 2020 Decennial Census (which is expected to cost $15.6 billion) to our High Risk List in February 2017, and it remains on our High Risk List today. GAO’s High Risk List includes programs and operations that are deemed ‘high risk’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation. The list is issued every 2 years at the start of each new session of Congress and has led to more than $350 billion in financial benefits to the federal government in the past 13 years.

Over the past decade, we have made 112 recommendations specific to the 2020 Decennial Census. Some of the major issues we’ve found include:

  • Counting everyone. For 2020, the Bureau is planning to increase its efforts to include groups that it considers “hard-to-count”—such as minorities, renters, and young children. It added more language choices for its materials and hired more people for outreach in local communities. However, we found that the Bureau faced challenges with integrating its outreach and promotion activities across its many different operations.

The below figure shows some of the challenges the Bureau has when trying to locate, contact, persuade, and interview hard-to-count groups.

  • Verifying addresses. Early Census operations to verify addresses were generally on schedule—field staff successfully completed address canvassing for more than 50 million addresses. However, the census faces a staff shortage and is working to recruit enough workers for later operations. For example, it is hiring up to 500,000 people to follow up with households that do not initially respond to the census.

The Bureau also allows tribal, state, and local governments to review and offer updates to its master address list. But the Bureau received 5.1 million updates from these organizations—more than it expected—and reviewed only a fraction of them in the office. Consequently, Census workers will have to visit and verify these addresses in person, which could mean millions of dollars in additional fieldwork.

For more on GAO’s Census work, listen to our Watchdog Report Deep Dig episode, where we talked to some of GAO’s experts on 2020 Census challenges.

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