Gotham Gazette

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The 2020 Census Has Officially Begun, Here's What To Know

3 2020 census

The 2020 Census begins now (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The 2020 Census process kicks off today -- Thursday March 12 -- as the U.S. Census Bureau began sending out mailers across the country and its territories to inform people about how to fill out the decennial questionnaire, which was also just made available online.

Every ten years, the Census attempts to collect information on every resident of the United States and its five territories. In all, the Census Bureau asks ten biographical questions about individuals – name, age, residential location, race, ethnicity, number of children in the same household, and more. (After a protracted battle, there is no question about citizenship status.)

Census data is used to determine how the federal government distributes billions of dollars in funding to states for everything from infrastructure and education to social welfare programs like housing rental vouchers and food assistance for low-income families. The Census is also used to draw electoral districts at the local, state, and federal levels and affects how many seats a particular state will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Census count officially began on January 21 in Toksook Bay, Alaska, as is the custom, but on Thursday the federal government began the broader process in earnest. It will last through July 31.

For the first time, the Census Bureau is largely relying on digital methodology rather than paper questionnaires, at least for the initial effort to count the population. That could pose a challenge for parts of the state and city that lack access to high-speed internet and technological infrastructure.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in a July report last year that 29% of city households, representing about 2.2 million residents, did not have home access to broadband internet. Even statewide, though 83% of households have internet access, many of them do not have high-speed internet, according to a report by the New York State Complete Count Commission. There are some efforts underway to overcome the so-called digital divide, including library partnerships.

Between March 12 and March 20, most households will receive a mailer that contains instructions on how to fill out the Census online or on the phone, while a smaller number of households will receive a paper questionnaire right away. According to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census project, for New York State, about 97.2% will receive a mailer from the Census Bureau; only 2.8% of housing units will initially receive hand-delivered Census packets.

About 15.2% (or 1,258,303) of all New York households will receive a Census packet that also includes an English-only paper questionnaire; another 6.2% (or 513,296) will receive an English and Spanish questionnaire. 

The Census is carried out in phases. The initial phase is focused on getting people to self-respond, which yields the most accurate data. In 2010, the average self-response rate at the national level was 76% (which was about the same for New York State) while in New York City it was only 62% and is projected to drop to 58% this year because of fears of data privacy, general apathy, and a sense of suspicion and distrust of the federal government. 

The self-response rate is used to determine which populations and areas are considered “hard-to-count” – for 2010, the threshold was a 73% self-response rate. Hard-to-count segments of the population include native Americans, children under the age of five, seniors, homeless individuals, people living in group quarters, public housing residents, those who cannot speak English or have limited English proficiency, immigrants (particularly undocumented immigrants), and African-Americans at all income levels

Parts of the state and city have strong concentrations of such populations. Brooklyn (or Kings County), for instance, was the hardest to count county in 2010, with only 67% of households self-responding to the Census. 

People filling out the Census are meant to tell the Census Bureau where they live as of April 1, which is Census Day. The last day for self-responses is July 31. 

Over three days, between March 30 and April 1, the Census Bureau will undertake a count of homeless people across the nation. On the first day, enumerators (individuals hired by the Bureau to conduct an in-person count) will track people at shelters. On the second day, they will count people at soup kitchens and mobile food vans, while on the third, they will tally homeless people living on the streets. 

Through April, the Bureau will also begin counting individuals living in group living arrangements who could otherwise slip through the cracks such as students living on and off campus, in senior centers, military barracks, correctional facilities, and even maritime and military ships. 

In May and running through July, the second main phase of the Census will launch, with the Census Bureau beginning its operation to count those households that haven’t responded to the questionnaire. Those households will be visited several times by enumerators if needed, and, if they are unsuccessful in reaching anyone who lives at a particular household, an enumerator may obtain information from a neighboring “proxy” household or use the neighboring hosuehold’s information to impute information about the non-responsive household. The Census Bureau will also attempt to fill in gaps in data through administrative records. 

All these methods, however, tend to be prone to errors and produce inaccurate data, according to demographic experts, making self-response the preferred method for obtaining data.That is why the Census Bureau, and state and local officials, have been trying to drive home the point that it is in the best interest of an individual and their community that they fill out the form. For instance, if the number of children under the age of 5 are undercounted in a community, it could affect federal funding for childcare programs or the decisions that local and state authorities make about school funding.   

The city and state are undertaking efforts, though with differing levels of urgency, to ensure an accurate count. New York City has put $40 million towards its census outreach, which includes $19 million in direct grants that have been doled out to community-based organizations that can reach hard-to-count populations on the ground. Taking note of the online methodology and disparities in internet access across the city, officials have made it a point to provide tablets to community partners and are collaborating with the library system to provide Census assistance at 110 branches, among other measures.

The state’s preparations have been somewhat lackluster in comparison. Though the state Legislature approved $20 million in funding in last year’s budget for community outreach, similar to the city’s grants, none of that state funding has been distributed. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also pledged that state agencies will be carrying out various census activities that will equate to about $40 million in spending, and he is also seeking another $10 million in the budget for the next fiscal year that begins April 1. 

In all, the Census Bureau will provide translation services for 59 languages besides English. In New York, State Senator Julia Salazar is hoping to expand translation services currently available through the Department of State to ensure maximum outreach in a state where more than 200 languages are spoken by residents.

[Read Gotham Gazette’s full 2020 Census coverage here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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