census still
A still from a Census Bureau promotional video.

There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but the virus that causes COVID-19 could hardly have hit at a more precarious moment for the United States. Not only are we in the middle of an election year, but in March people across the country began receiving letters instructing them on how to participate in the 2020 census. This Constitutionally mandated, once-every-decade effort to count all people living in the country is essential to ensure states, cities and municipalities are allocated enough financial resources to address the health, social-service, educational and other needs of their residents.   

Grappling with the pandemic is demanding a tremendous amount of attention and resources. The situation, however, provides an acute reminder of exactly why the Census is so critical: Communities that don’t count all their residents won’t receive their fair share of funding, and they ultimately won’t have the needed medical facilities, health care providers and infrastructure to weather the challenges of a national health emergency such as the one we’re currently experiencing.   

The good news is, the census has a long track record of successful execution largely because organizers have created a multitude of response options that make participation easy. The short questionnaire (nine questions that can be answered in less than 10 minutes) can be completed through self-reported methods online, by phone or by mail. The responses are anonymous, and no question is asked about citizenship. These varied methods will be particularly useful for facilitating an accurate population count as well as collection of important demographics during the current health crisis.  

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to census execution. Census Bureau officials have had to temporarily suspend field operations to protect census takers from potential exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and they also extend the targeted completion date for the census by two weeks into mid-August.

The aggressive, yet necessary response to the current pandemic also comes with several unexpected and significant challenges to census participation. For example, public libraries have been planning to make their computers available to householders who lack access to WiFi at home or at work so they can complete the questionnaire online. But communities across the country have shuttered their libraries to help stem the spread of this dangerous virus. Universities also have shut down their campuses and moved to distance learning models. As a result, some out-of-area students may not be counted as local residents, and this could leave many college towns under-resourced for the next decade.  

Fears over the risk of contracting COVID-19 also could reduce the number of census workers available to knock on doors of uncounted households come May and the number of people willing to respond to them, resulting in significant undercounting in hard-to-count communities—most of which have large populations of immigrants and people of color. Approximately 36 percent of New York state residents live in hard-to-count communities where a quarter or more households didn’t complete the 2010 census until prompted by a door knock from an enumerator, according to data from the CUNY Mapping Service’s “Hard to Count” census mapping tool

Aggressively promoting early self-response, particularly in hard-to-count communities, is critical to achieving a full and accurate census count and avoiding the need to send out large numbers of enumerators this spring or summer—a move that would support social distancing efforts (a public health protocol aimed at ending the pandemic) and save money at a time when the economy is feeling the impact of the unexpected health crisis.  

By taking these simple, yet critical steps, individuals can do their part during this crisis to ensure a successful census:  

  • Be proactive. If you haven’t received your census letter, visit https://my2020census.gov/ to complete the questionnaire online today. 
  • Don’t wait for a census taker home visit. You can complete the Census by phone (844-330-2020) today. This can help you avoid a door knock and support efforts to flatten COVID-19 infection rates through social distancing. 
  • Help your community respond. You can visit the CUNY Census 2020 project at https://www.cuny.edu/academics/current-initiatives/cuny-census to see your neighborhood’s participation response and encourage your neighbors, friends and families to complete the questionnaire. 

These are unprecedented times that will require everyone to take extra measures to ensure we are each counted among the threads making up the fabric of our country. Because when it comes to the resources allocated as a result of the census, being counted is the only way to count.   

Luisa N. Borrell is a distinguished professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, CUNY.