The U.S. census, the decennial count of every person in the United States that decides where billions of dollars in federal funding and go and where lawmakers will draw the lines for congressional districts and other elected offices, is just one of the many elements of American life that have been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.
A constant headline during the last count in 2010, the census barely been a blip on most Americans’ radars in a year that started with the impeachment trial of President Trump in the Senate, followed by a hotly-contested Democratic presidential primary and then a pandemic. But the Census Bureau is mandated to deliver the population count to Trump by Dec. 31, and the count must go on.
Here’s how the 2020 census has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Reduced staffing at call centers
The Census Bureau allows Americans to respond to the census by phone – as well as online or by mail – but in an effort to meet social distancing guidelines it has had to reduce the staffing at its call centers.
The bureau says those staffing reductions have at times “led to increases in call wait times, affecting different languages at different times.”
Americans can respond to the census, including over the phone, in 12 different languages and the Census Bureau says it “is working to mitigate the impact on the 2020 Census call centers” of the coronavirus.
Suspended field operations
The Census Bureau announced on March 18 that, in accordance with White House guidelines on slowing the spread of the coronavirus, it would suspend its field operations for two weeks. It later extended the suspension until at least April 15 and seems likely to extend it again after the Trump administration extended its coronavirus social distancing guidelines through April. It also suspended in-person interviews.
The census’ field operations are a massive public relations campaign dedicated to increasing turnout, especially in areas that are traditionally harder to count, which includes community events, resources and more.
The New York Times reported that 90 public census events in Detroit were canceled. In Allentown, Pa., the Times reported, a local basketball tournament that would have promoted the census was canceled.
If the Census Bureau is forced to keep its in-person interviews on hold for too long that could interfere with efforts over the summer to interview people who haven’t responded to the census with one of the other methods. Those efforts were originally scheduled to conclude on July 31 but have now been put off until Aug. 14.
Assistance for college students
College students, because they often live in large, group settings far away from where they’ve lived most of their lives, are counted by the Census Bureau’s “Group Quarters Operation, which counts all students living in university-owned housing.”
The bureau has made clear that it still wants to count students where they go to school despite the fact they may be scattered due to universities transitioning to remote learning for the latter part of the spring semester due to the pandemic.
The Census Bureau said that it is contacting schools that may have indicated their preferences for helping students fill out paper census forms rather than online forms to see if they would like to modify their strategies, and asks schools to remind students about the census.
Encouraging online responses
The one thing that the Census Bureau continues to emphasize through the coronavirus pandemic is that the easiest way to respond to the census is online.
“The public is strongly encouraged to respond to the 2020 Census online using a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet, and can also respond by phone or mail,” U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in a statement on March 18.
He continued: “It has never been easier to respond to the census, and the 2020 Census will count everyone accurately. We recognize that many people plan to access the 2020 Census through other response modes, such as phone or paper, which is why the 2020 Census has such a nimble design.”