Spotlight Exclusives

Plans and Partners for the 2020 Census

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

Once a decade, the U.S. Census Bureau aims to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place” – and the information it collects informs how the federal government allocates more than $675 billion annually, distributes political power through congressional apportionment and delivers a decade of important data that drives decisions in health systems, local governments, businesses, social services, infrastructure and more.

One year out from the 2020 census, the Census Bureau held a press briefing Monday about why a complete and accurate census count is important and how the Bureau and its external partners plan to accomplish that goal by using new technologies, methods and practices.

For example, for the first time ever, people can respond to the census by phone and over internet.

Bureau officials emphasized the security of their internet response system. “We’re using the latest and best technologies and practices to protect data confidentiality, and strong federal laws apply,” Director Dr. Steven Dillingham said.

In addition to efficiency, Bureau officials said the internet option offers another advantage. People can now respond without the identification number that the Bureau has provided on their paperwork. “Imagine holding a respond-to-the-census event at a conference, in a sports stadium, after services in a church, synagogue or mosque. People can respond right then and right there. We’ve not been able to do this before, and we think this is a great opportunity to encourage people to act,” Albert E. Fontenot, Jr. associate director for decennial census programs, said.

The Bureau also is expanding its use of language services. Those using the internet and phone can respond in 12 non-English languages, which officials estimate will cover 87 percent of households that do not speak English well.

No mention was made of the recent controversy surrounding a citizenship question, which was proposed by the Trump administration and is being considered by the Supreme Court.

Fontenot said that to count people who are without conventional housing or are experiencing homelessness, a special operation will work with advocacy organizations to reach them at pre-identified outdoor places and at sites that provide services.

The Bureau plans to enlist more than 300,000 organizations – including business associations, community and neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations and healthcare providers – to serve as census partners. These partners will help form Complete Count Committees, which seek to ensure that everyone in their community is counted.

Speakers from several external partners spoke about the importance of ensuring accurate counts.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, spoke about the long-term undercounting of the Native American population. In the 2020 census, Native Americans were counted at about 4.9 percent less than their population, a rate more than double the next closest population group. He pointed to logistical obstacles, including reaching reservations in remote places and counting those who lack housing or live in shared housing in a population with high poverty rates.

An accurate count is particularly important for Native Americans, Anoatubby said, because of the government-to-government relationships between tribes and the federal government. The federal government has treaty responsibilities to provide services such as education and healthcare, which depend on census data.

Anoatubby encouraged other tribes to work toward an accurate count by becoming partners. “This is your census. This our census,” he said. “We all need to work to assure its accuracy, and I believe the key word here is engage.”

Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, addressed another undercounted population: children. The 2010 census missed 10 percent of young children, many of whom were kids of color or kids in low-income families, she said. But accurate data is essential to informing decisions and capturing a reliable picture of family and child wellbeing, as the foundation does in its signature KIDS COUNT publication.

“We can’t afford a decade of underfunding for programs and services that we know millions of Americans, and particularly American children, need to have stable lives,” Hamilton said. “An inaccurate census also threatens to mute the voices of undercounted groups and jeopardize the most fundamental values of our democracy by withholding political power and representation from people who are underrepresented.”

Fontenot noted that the Bureau is “mounting a major initiative” to remind parents and guardians to count their children.

Loida Garcia-Febo, president of the American Library Association, spoke about how libraries are providing support ranging from recruiting census workers in their area to offering access to computers and the internet.

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