Census Bureau alters operations amid COVID-19 pandemic, aims to maintain accurate counts

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 5:13pm

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Taylor Schott

Data collection for the 2020 Census began early last week, just as many students left their colleges amid the COVID-19 pandemic to return home. The U.S. Census Bureau released a statement on March 15 detailing how their operations would change to ensure people are accurately counted. The statement declared the Bureau is committed to counting as many students as possible. The Bureau also said students should respond with their school address — regardless of where they are living on Census Day, April 1 — and has provided answers to common questions on their website. 

“We are adjusting operations to make sure college students are counted,” the press release said. “In general, students in colleges and universities temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus will still be counted as part of this process. … We are asking schools to contact their students and remind them to respond.”

LSA junior Carolyn Chen, a political science major, said she thought getting students to respond would be difficult, as they may instead be focused on their schoolwork and the effects of COVID-19. She also said students may not understand the impact of the census, as it is not widely publicized, and therefore they may not take time to respond.

“Unfortunately, the ... census is not the number one priority for many students right now,” Chen said. “The census’s impact is not something that gains a lot of recognition, and if there was low visibility about census issues before the pandemic, then there is probably even less visibility now. The news is filled with so many other headlines that the importance of data accuracy does not even cross many people’s minds.”

Chen also explained why she believes the census is important, citing the value of congressional representation. She also discussed ways the Bureau could increase student response. 

“It is important that people are reminded that, in a time like this, having accurate representation and data can be crucial (for) public health and safety,” Chen said. “I think that it’s great that the census can be responded to online (because) they can probably get a higher rate of accurate responses. Right now, not a lot of people are willing to leave the house or talk to people in person, so using online tactics for something this important should definitely help.” 

In the press release, the Bureau also announced how they would alter data collection to ensure safe procedures. Though they have suspended in-person canvassing in certain locations, they emphasized the importance of counting everyone to ensure accurate numbers once they are able to resume in-person operations. The Bureau is also placing an emphasis on locations where students often live and places where homeless populations frequently visit. 

“In (the in-person) operation, census takers begin following up with households that haven’t responded yet around some colleges and universities,” the Bureau said. “We can count households in areas with off-campus housing before the end of the spring semester when students may leave for another residence.” 

Margaret Leary, former director of the University Law Library, has given educational presentations on the census and participated in various outreach events, such as a census town hall event in February. She said students leaving Michigan to return home could greatly impact the count and, in turn, affect the amount of representation apportioned to the state. 

“I expect the absence of students will lessen — and make less accurate — the count throughout Michigan,” Leary said. “College students are low responders because they are so busy. It is very possible ... they will be counted at home. Overall, this is probably bad for Michigan, because if they are not counted here, and are counted in another state, that increases the chance of our congressional numbers dropping from 14 to less. It depends on how well colleges and universities respond to the Census Bureau’s efforts.”

The Bureau said people can respond online or over the phone, and that they will also be participating in outreach efforts in hopes of increasing the initial response. This would include producing advertisements explaining the census and motivating people to fill it out.“

The Census Bureau is also making changes to its paid media campaign, earned media efforts, and partnership outreach efforts to adapt to changing conditions while continuing to promote self-response,” the press release said.

“The key message right now for anyone with questions about how COVID-19 will affect the 2020 Census: It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker.” 

Leary commented on the Bureau’s outreach efforts and how they hope to prevent the COVID-19 crisis from affecting the census. She said she expects the changes made to the process will reduce the number of people counted, especially among undocumented people, college students, people of color and those with lower degrees of education or low socioeconomic status.

“I am very concerned because it will inevitably cause the count to be less than it would have been for several reasons,” Leary said. “(It will impact) those groups that are historically least likely to respond either from fear and/or lack of knowledge of the impact of them not being counted. There will (also) be both less time and fewer Census Bureau workers to knock on doors to encourage people to respond. Each one of these elements will compound as the coronavirus emergency worsens or lengthens.”

Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at eruberg@umich.edu