S.E. Williams | Contributor
“Since 1790 the United States has taken a national census every ten years, but something will be different with the 2020 enumeration.”
Riverside, CA – For the first time in 230 years the United States is deploying technology to help facilitate the decennial census.
The use of technology provides many benefits, yet there are lingering concerns for traditionally undercounted and low-income communities that are disproportionately Black.
Although this is the first-time citizens will be asked to participate in the census online, it is important for everyone to know that the internet is not the only way to respond.
By April 2020, every household will receive an invitation to participate and regardless of how you choose to respond for Blacks and other minorities, participation is essential to ensure these communities are not undercounted. Households will have three ways to respond including by phone, by mail and online.
Eighty percent of households will be invited to respond to the census using the internet and according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Census Bureau expects an online response rate of about 45 percent.
Those who do not respond to the initial online census request will subsequently be mailed paper questionnaires and although they will once again be invited to respond online, they will also be offered the option of responding by mail.
The remaining 20 percent of American households not invited to participate by internet—including those with low internet access and/or large older-adult populations—will be mailed paper questionnaires from the start.
Also, regardless of whether households are solicited by mail or online, everyone will be able to answer the questionnaire by phone if they choose.
Finally, households that fail to respond to any of these opportunities will be visited by field workers/enumerators who will go door-to-door soliciting responses to the census questionnaire using an application on either a mobile device or tablet.
Each method of gathering census information has benefits as well as disadvantages.
This most common method of conducting a population census affords respondents the ability to fill out the survey on their own time and return it via mail at no cost. The mail method is cheap to deploy however there is no way of guaranteeing that everyone receives a copy of the survey and there is also a chance the person who receives it will not complete and return it. Additionally, traditional mail is a slower process.
When census surveys are not returned, census takers call before sending some one door-to door. Though more costly to facilitate than mail surveys it is cheaper than sending someone door-to-door. However, it can be more difficult to reach households by phone. A 2018 survey showed only 47.5 percent of American households have landlines and often, cell numbers are not listed.
This is the most effective way of reaching households that do not respond as it dramatically increases response rates. However, it is also costly to administer and is time consuming as census takers must find houses and time their arrival when someone is home before they can conduct the survey interviews. This method also involves personal safety and security considerations for those who go door to door.
It is hoped an online census will help mitigate the challenges of counting an increasingly large and diverse population by limiting some of the challenges associated with mail, phone and in person visits while also saving the federal government billions of dollars—at least five billion by some estimates—in administrative costs.
Beyond these advantages however, this approach also presents a plethora of concerns. Firstly, the census process manages a large volume of personal information and the bureau must ensure it is protected. This makes cyber security a critical and essential element of the process.
Equally as important is the need to ensure challenges to participation in the 2020 Census regarding communities historically undercounted are proactively addressed in relation to the internet. This is because racial and ethnic minorities, urban and rural low-income households, immigrants, and young children have been undercounted at disproportionately high rates and there are concerns the mechanization of the census could leave these groups even more vulnerable to an undercount.
There is mixed news for Blacks in this regard. Although 23 percent of people in urban areas either do not have access to or cannot afford broadband service for internet access, most Blacks are connected to the internet by smart phone.
Overall, according to Pew research, 72 percent of all African Americans—including 98 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29—have internet access either via a broadband connection or a smartphone. Importantly, the census questionnaire is smart phone compatible.
A 2019 Pew report, however, has raised concerns that persist regarding internet access among vulnerable groups within the Black community and other demographics. It showed, “More than 40 percent of American seniors do not use the Internet, as opposed to 1 percent of millennials. A close second demographic with no access to the internet are Americans with less than a high school education—34 percent.”
In addition, among African American seniors aged 65 and older, only 65 percent are very confident or somewhat confident in using computers and/or smartphones according to a 2015 report.
Minority organizations and leaders are working to ensure everyone in their communities are counted but they need the support of all to make it happen.
America is at a tipping point—standing on the precipice of becoming a minority-majority nation. But this will be delayed if minority groups continue to be undercounted.
Why it Matters
The 2020 Census count will determine how states will be allocated seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; how federal dollars will be distributed for essential services like: education, housing, healthcare, transportation networks, social services, public safety, and job training; and, businesses will use the data to determine where to locate factories, build shopping centers, movie theaters, banks and offices.
In addition, although individual census records are protected for 72 years, when the information is ultimately released, it is possible our great-great grandchildren may some day use this information in their studies and/or to help them learn about their family’s history.
As Black leaders and organizations across California and the nation work assertively to help assure segments of Black communities historically undercounted are not left out in 2020, it is incumbent upon every member of the African American family at-large to play a role in this important effort.
Some of the ways to do so is first to be sure your household responds to the questionnaire. You can also assist by helping to educate your family and friends about the critical importance of being counted; by offering to assist family members, friends and neighbors who may need help completing their census document; by reaching out to local church and community groups to see how you can help members of your community fully participate in this effort; and/or by signing up here to be a census taker or to apply for any of the other 2020 Census jobs that may be available in your community.
Everyone in the Black community counts. Everyone can and must do their part to make sure everyone in the Black community is counted.