Big trouble coming with the 2020 Census

OK, first things first. For readers of this blog who live in the United States: Don’t forget to fill out your census. They’re doing in online, and you should’ve received a letter in the mail last month telling you how to do it.

And now the news. Dr. Z points us to this post by Diana Elliott and Robert Santos, “Unpredictable Residency during the COVID-19 Pandemic Spells Trouble for the 2020 Census Count.” Elliott and Santos write:

Just before lockdowns were implemented across the country, there was tremendous movement and migration of people relocating to different residences to shelter in place. This makes sense for the people involved but could be disastrous for the communities they fled and the final 2020 Census counts.

The 2020 Census, like most data collected by the US Census Bureau, is residence based. . . . Most residences across America have already received their 2020 Census invitation. Whether completed online, by paper, by phone, or in person, the first official question on the 2020 Census questionnaire is “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?” Households are expected to answer this based on the concept of “usual residence,” or the place where a person lives and sleeps most of the time.

Despite written guidance provided on the 2020 Census on how to answer this question, doing so may be wrought with complexities and nuance from the pandemic.

First, research reveals that respondents do not often read questionnaire instructions; they dive in and start answering. With many people scrambling to other counties, cities, and states to hunker down for the long haul with loved ones, this will lead to incorrect counts when people are counted at temporary addresses.

Second, for many, the concept of “usual residence” has little relevance in the uncertainty unfolding during the COVID-19 pandemic. What if your temporary address becomes your permanent address? What does “usual residence” mean during a global epidemic that could stretch for 18 months or more? And perhaps more importantly, what should it mean? . . .

The US Census Bureau must act. It will need more processing time to identify and remove duplicates in the returns—a phenomenon that occurs regardless of a pandemic—and will need to flag potential population spikes in certain communities. . . .

Unfortunately, communities face a zero-sum game for decennial population counts. Communities that gain population in 2020 because of the pandemic will reap the benefits of better funding and representation for the next decade. Communities with population loss will receive less than they deserve.

Every census count brings new challenges, some of which lead to miscounts that get brought to and battled over in court. Without a proactive approach to the 2020 Census that addresses these residency questions, the COVID-19 pandemic may be unintentionally inviting communities to wage contentious court battles over the accuracy of the count for years to come.

A few weeks earlier, Santos and Elliott had written a post, Is It Time to Postpone the 2020 Census?:

We know that COVID-19 testing in the US has proven inadequate, and community spread has now taken hold. The virus has spread to 45 of 50 states as of March 12, 2020, and it’s reported to be 10 times more lethal than influenza and much more contagious. . . . Although the decennial census is mandated by the Constitution, the extreme challenges raised by the pandemic may warrant an unprecedented delay to protect the census’s accuracy. These challenges include:

Difficulty finding and retaining enumerators . . .

Making hard-to-count populations even harder to count . . .

Lacking planning or protocols for conducting the census during a pandemic . . .

Should the census be postponed? Extended? Canceled? . . . Regardless of the option, it is hard to imagine that the 2020 Census could simply go on as scheduled. Some hard decisions face the US Census Bureau. The health of our democracy may be at stake.

We should’ve listened to them back on March 13th.