Despite winding up its data collection work two weeks earlier than scheduled, top U.S. Census Bureau officials said Wednesday that more than 99 percent of the nation’s households were accounted for in the 2020 U.S. Census.
The Census Bureau stopped its non-response follow-up operations on Oct. 15 after the U.S. Supreme Court granted a request by the administration of President Donald Trump to suspend a lower court injunction that prevented the bureau from halting field work before Oct. 31.
“Data collection is now finished,” bureau Associate Director for Field Operations Tim Olson said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “It feels great.”
The census kicked off in earnest when questionnaires and invitations to participate were sent out in March.
“We never expected to conduct the census with the challenges that entered as ferociously as they did in 2020.”Tim Olson, U.S. Census Bureau
People were able to respond by filling out the paper form, calling into an official census hotline or, for the first time ever, completing the questionnaire online.
During this period, 67 percent of U.S. households self-responded to the census.
In California, 69.6 percent of households self-responded, while the state with the highest percentage was Minnesota, with 75 percent.
Then, between July 15 and Oct. 15, census field workers went out to knock on the doors of households that had yet to participate.
During these phases of the count, it seemed likely that the census would be undermined by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home directives and social distancing mandates.
“We never expected to conduct the census with the challenges that entered as ferociously as they did in 2020,” Olson said.
“The coronavirus pandemic has effectively shut down our society for months on end (and) hit us as census field operations were starting in March,” he said.
From natural disasters to civil unrest
Albert Fontenot, associate director for Decennial Programs at the bureau, also noted that census outreach and enumeration efforts were hampered by massive wildfires in the west, a steady barrage of hurricanes in the south and long periods of nationwide civil unrest after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by Minneapolis police in May.
“The 2020 Census had to adapt and change,” Olson said.
The bureau was able to hire more than 528,000 people for temporary jobs, worked with nearly 400,000 community organizations to conduct outreach and education about the importance of the census, supplied field staff with 42 million pieces of personal protective equipment to guard against COVID-19 transmission, and leveraged new software and hand-held electronic devices to increase the accuracy and efficiency of the count, Olson said.
Still, many of those working on the front lines of the decennial effort to count every person living in the country worry that the 2020 Census could still come up short.
“They will always say that 99.9 percent of households have been accounted for, not counted,” said Stephanie Kim the census lead for United Way Bay Area, one of the partners California’s $187.2 million census awareness campaign.
One of the biggest impediments to a complete and accurate count is the very Trump administration that is in charge of 2020 Census, Kim said.
Three times the administration has tried to sabotage the count, Kim said — once by trying to include a question about citizenship on the questionnaire, once by trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment data and once by shortening the census timeline as much as possible.
“It was why it was important for us to get our local self-response rates so high,” she said, noting that the Bay Area’s rate was 75.7 percent.
“We also know that regardless of if the census were to end on Oct. 15 or Oct. 31, there’s still not enough time for the census to produce a high-quality data set,” she said.
Congressional representation at stake
The deadline for validating the census data for apportionment — the determination of how many U.S. Representatives will be sent to Congress from each state — is Dec. 31.
Kim noted that advocacy groups are still fighting to extend that deadline to April 30, the date the Census Bureau itself recommended back in March in order to adjust to the delays forced upon it by the pandemic.
Fontenot said that the bureau could extend the deadline itself if the need arises.
“If we need more time to fix a problem that comes up that would impact the quality of the census, we’re taking it,” Fontenot said. “We’re working to come as close as possible to the Dec. 31 deadline. That decision will be made by career staff at the Census Bureau.”
The data will also eventually be used to redraw Congressional districts to account for changing population figures and to assign billions of dollars of federal spending to state and local governments.
In order to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, however, the bureau will for now focus only on apportionment, not redistricting, Fontenot said.
“The message I keep trying to drill home is that we need Congress to pass the bipartisan, bicameral bill to extend the statutory deadlines for apportionment data,” Kim said. “That is really our only hope at this point to ensure they have enough time to process the data.”