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Census Bureau nears goal for 2020 count, but crucial areas lag

Rates have fallen short in minority neighborhoods and other hard-to-count communities

After the self-response phase, the Census Bureau plans to send out 500,000 or more door-knockers to count the rest of the country.
After the self-response phase, the Census Bureau plans to send out 500,000 or more door-knockers to count the rest of the country. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Census Bureau has reached the cusp of its goal for the nation to respond to the 2020 count, but with rates still lagging in minority neighborhoods, advocates and members of Congress worry that people in diverse communities will get missed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 59 percent of the nation’s households have responded so far to the census online, by mail or by phone, according to the agency. That’s within 1 percent of the Census Bureau’s final goal for self-response. But the same pandemic that gave the agency extra time to let people respond on their own also has disrupted many Census Bureau plans to reach ethnic minorities, immigrants and other “hard-to-count” populations.

“They’re falling short in outreach to Latino and immigrant communities,” said Arturo Vargas, who heads the NALEO Educational Fund, an advocacy organization. 

An undercount of these populations could lead these communities to miss out on political representation and $1.5 trillion in federal funds tied to the decennial count. 

“The only tool we have at our disposal right now is advertising and especially paid advertising nationwide. We just don’t have the resources to do that on our own,” Vargas said.

In the largely African American Bronx neighborhood of Wakefield, New York, the response rate ranges between 30 and 40 percent. The majority-Hispanic Miami Beach has a response rate of 36 percent. 

Rates dive deeper in rural areas with large minority populations. The majority-Hispanic Presidio County in southwest Texas has a 6 percent response rate. On the Navajo Nation reservation, less than 1 percent of the households have responded to the census. That rate may end up higher since the Census Bureau recently restarted delivering paper questionnaires to rural areas around the country with little internet access.

The Census Bureau also will soon restart operations in Puerto Rico, which has an 8 percent response rate, with staff dropping off questionnaires at many households.

Census officials initially planned on spending $500 million as part of an advertising campaign highlighting the importance of filling out the census. They worked on outreach nationwide with hundreds of thousands of local partners such as community groups, libraries and nonprofit groups to counter a decadeslong trend of undercounting minority communities, immigrants, young children and rural Americans. 

After the self-response phase, the Census Bureau plans to send out 500,000 or more door-knockers to count the rest of the country. Experts, however, say that process will be less accurate, with a greater risk of missing people.

The agency also said it plans to continue outreach through the fall, and plans on in-person counting efforts in the field later this summer. But Vargas, other advocates and members of Congress fear the agency hasn’t done enough to bounce back from the disruption the pandemic caused to its original timeline.

Congressional action

Last Wednesday, the leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus wrote the Census Bureau asking about in-person briefings, more outreach, and support for additional languages in the agency’s plans. They noted long-standing concerns that their constituents would be undercounted in the census, just like in previous counts.

“The pandemic has since then added unprecedented barriers to the enumeration of all Americans and early analysis of the response rates of the 2020 Census show that these barriers are disproportionately impacting communities of color and immigrant communities,” they said.

The caucus leaders, as well as House Oversight and Government Reform Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., have asked for regular updates as a condition of granting the Census a requested deadline extension.

The latest coronavirus relief bill passed Friday by the House would include $400 million in additional appropriations for the Census to deal with the impacts of the pandemic. The bill also would require the agency to provide monthly operational updates and give the agency the 120-day deadline extension to finish the count and deliver new apportionment numbers to Congress.

Representatives from the Census Bureau and its advertising agency, VMLY&R, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about this story.

Fear of undercount

Vargas’ organization, along with more than 100 others, urged congressional leaders in a letter last week to have the Census Bureau do more to reach hard-to-count communities amid the pandemic. They noted that past counts have missed millions, including minorities, immigrants, renters, the elderly and young children. 

The groups called for the Census Bureau to send out more paper questionnaires, add more languages and adjust its “mobile questionnaire assistance” effort. One of many plans disrupted by the pandemic, the Census Bureau initially planned to send “mobile questionnaire assistance” staff to community events and public gatherings, rather than create physical outreach offices.

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Signatories also want the agency to update all of its advertising to emphasize the importance of responding to the census, and its uses for public health. Vargas said it’s been frustrating to watch the Census Bureau update its English-language advertisements, but not those in Spanish, when diverse communities have been much harder hit by the coronavirus.

“Not to change its messaging toward Spanish-speaking audiences about why the census is important today, it is like the Census Bureau has turned a deaf ear to the Spanish-language population in the United States in terms of its messaging,” Vargas said.

A Government Accountability Office report released last week on 2020 census outreach efforts said the agency told investigators it planned to add $160 million to its advertising campaign.

The report also noted that the pandemic added to existing difficulties the agency had, including bringing on local staff late.

“Given the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on partner activities, having partnership specialists onboarded and partnerships formed later than anticipated meant several months less time for in-person community engagement and education activities leading up to the census in some areas,” the report said.

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