Amid pandemic, worries about the census

Mike Genet

With the pandemic draped over the national consciousness through the spring and summer and U.S. Census Bureau’s recent announcement that it will pull back its original end date for data collection, Marlene Nagel is among those concerned the 2020 census might not end with the best figures.

The once-a-decade count is used for everything from determining congressional districts to how much federal money flows to communities across the country.

“The concern is it’s (a possible undercount) going to affect representation at the federal, state and local levels, and it’s going to affect it for a decade.” said Nagel, director of community development for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City. “Private business investment and communities use the data for important planning decisions.”

The Census Bureau announced this week it will end field data collection by Sept. 30, a month earlier than originally announced and the same day self-response ends. The Census Bureau reported this week that 63.1 percent of U.S. households – 93.3 million – have responded to surveys. Missouri’s response rate has been ever-so-slightly greater – 63.2 percent. For the 2010 census, its final response rate was 67.5 percent, 1 percentage point higher than the national rate. The 2020 census marked the first time people had the option to respond online in addition to by mail or phone.

“It’s obviously posed a big challenge for communities all across the nation – communicating with residents and helping them respond to the census,” said Nagel, director of community development for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City. “It’s not just the local communities; it’s the Census Bureau. Their staff has been affected by the stay-at-home orders and concerns about being out in the community.”

“People's attention is focused on preservation of the household and family,” Nagel said. “There’s a lot of factors affecting the count.”

“There were barriers to a complete count even before the disaster: going to an online version for the first time, growing distrust for government, particularly the federal government. For lots of reasons, this census was going to be more difficult than a decade ago, and that’s what we’re seeing. The response rate’s at least 10 percentage points below 2010, though that’s not in all cases. Some of our suburban areas in our area are doing quite well.”

Locally, Jackson County’s self-response rate is 61.4 percent, lower than every Missouri bordering county except Johnson (60.4 percent). Lee’s Summit has the highest area response rate at 79 percent, followed by Blue Springs (75.7), Grain Valley (75.3), Oak Grove (72.2), Raytown (69), Independence (64.5) and Sugar Creek (62.4). Kansas City’s response rate is at 57.6 percent.

Census data essentially provide snapshots of the nation, states and communities. The census determines congressional seats and state and local representation boundaries and also helps determine federal funding for dozens or programs, ranging from school lunches, education and highway construction to emergency disaster relief. Municipalities and businesses use census data to guide a variety of planning decisions.

Data counts must be submitted to Congress by the end of the year.

Field data collection includes follow-up visits to households and trying to count hard-to-reach populations such as people traveling or using shelters or the homeless.

Nagel said that when the Census Bureau initially extended data collection through October, officials thought local communities would be helping with outreach. MARC had planned to work with local governments and organizations to promote a complete count, including mobile questionnaire assistance centers. The pandemic shifted outreach efforts mainly through food pantries and electronic newsletters.

“Instead, we’re still having to deal with the public health and economic disaster, and having less time to do it would be a concern,” Nagel said. “We’re just trying to get the word out.”

In a release this week, Census Bureau Director Steven Gillingham said, “We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” and that the bureau “intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities.”

Nagel said the bureau has skilled statisticians, with access to further data sets such as commercial data to help round out estimates. But, she added, “It’s concerning that if they’re using commercial data, lower-income people in rural areas or urban core would be undercounted.”

According to MARC, experts estimated the country’s population was undercounted by 1 percent in the 2010 census – even higher for minorities. A similar undercount this year would mean a $48 million loss in the Kansas City region covering 16 federal programs, including $20.5 million in Jackson County.

Census forms and volunteers do not ask for Social Security, bank or credit card numbers, money, donations or anything on behalf of a political party, and census surveys do not include a citizenship question. By federal law, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about a person or their home or business, including to law enforcement agencies.