On August 3rd, the U.S. Census Bureau (“Bureau”) announced major changes to their operational timeline for the 2020 Decennial Census. Since March, the Bureau has been working to ensure an accurate and complete count amidst unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, the agency halted field operations and began planning to collect data with social distancing and health precautions. Weeks later, in April, the bureau petitioned Congress for a 120 day extension of the census timeline, moving the date for information to be delivered to the states to July 31, 2021. Additionally, this moved the self-reporting deadline for Americans to October 31, 2020.
At the time, advocates and local officials applauded the decision for ensuring that every resident of the United States would be accurately and safely counted. On August 3rd, the Census Bureau reversed course. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced that Census 2020 self-reporting would end on September 30, 2020, one month earlier than anticipated.
The Bureau is adjusting the timeline with a goal of accelerating “the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020, as required by law and directed by the Secretary of Commerce.” In addition to these changes, the Bureau is utilizing digital tools that are new to the Census process with a stated goal to maximize data collection while protecting the health and safety of Department of Commerce employees and the general public.
The Census Bureau has underscored their commitment to a full count, and believe that this acceleration will neither compromise the number of respondents nor the accuracy of the data. However, critics of the deadline change claim that the rushed process could lead to a misrepresentation of historically hard to count communities across the country. The 2020 Census is the first in our nation’s history to be conducted primarily online and with upwards of 20 million people still lacking access to broadband across the country, many face barriers to this innovative process. As a result, in-person census counters are more important than ever to ensure that disconnected populations are not left out of this crucial count.
Following this major change, the onus is on local officials to re-tool outreach efforts to increase participation rates within their communities. The State Data Center network, a longtime partner of the Census Bureau, state leaders, and local officials, claims that a rushed process could lead to a miscount and harm the data municipal leaders need to properly serve their constituents. With over $1.5 trillion in federal appropriations dependent on the Census, the role of local officials in an accurate count has never been more apparent.
Since the beginning of this process, municipal leaders have led the charge on raising public awareness and have a unique understanding of the challenges their communities face. Even as the Census Bureau has cut resources and accelerated the data collection timeline, community leaders understand how an undercount could impact federal and state funding. That is why it is so important that they continue to educate their residents and encourage participation by every household.
This year’s census is the 24th iteration of our national count, and it has never been more important. In the two centuries since our first census, we have updated our laws and processes to ensure each and every person is counted across the country. Amidst a global pandemic and a pervasive digital divide, we must continue to support this process at every level of government. It will have a far-reaching impact on community resources for education, health care, and infrastructure for the next 10 years.