The COVID-19 crisis has upended the carefully laid plans for the 2020 Census in ways that might have disproportionate effects on California’s count. The Census Bureau is making important adjustments, but California needs to be particularly vigilant about the potential consequences.
The Bureau began its self-response period on March 12, when it started mailing out invitations to participate in the census to virtually every household in the country. Self-response remains the safest and simplest way to gather census data because, unlike in-person interviews, it does not raise the risk of coronavirus exposure.
The virus has altered almost every other effort the Bureau had planned. The Bureau always does extensive follow-up with households that fail to self-respond. More people are likely to need follow-up in California than in the average state, so problems with that process will be felt more acutely here. Follow-up is generally in person, which raises risks that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago; at least one census worker has even tested positive for the virus. To accommodate some of these challenges, the Bureau has delayed hiring and pushed back both the start of the follow-up (from May 13 to May 28) and the cutoff date for completed self-response forms (from July 31 to August 14).
The Bureau’s plans for counting those in less conventional living arrangements have been upended as well. The original plan for group quarters such as college dorms and senior living facilities was to send out a census worker to collect information for the entire facility from a contact person. College students are supposed to be counted as if at school, but many have been sent away from their campuses. And senior facilities are protecting their highly vulnerable residents by strictly limiting access. The Bureau is exploring alternative approaches.
People who are homeless, particularly those living on the street or in cars, are especially difficult to count. Estimates suggest that homelessness is a bigger and faster-growing problem in California than in almost any other state. The Bureau had planned to count homeless people wherever they happened to be from March 30 to April 1. But the homeless population is especially vulnerable to the virus, and sending census workers out to count in person would put the workers and their communities at risk. The Bureau has delayed this effort by a month to lower the risk of contagion.
Finally, the Bureau does a wide range of communications work just to get the message out that the census is happening and is important. The Bureau’s carefully developed media campaign is likely to be overwhelmed by news about the pandemic. Moreover, a significant amount of outreach was to be conducted in physical spaces by trusted messengers in each community. All of that will need to be rethought. Not only are large gatherings generally banned, but most community spaces are closed.
Though there is some scheduling flexibility, a hard deadline looms. By law, the Bureau must submit total state populations to the president by December 31 so that congressional representation can be adjusted to reflect changes in population over the previous 10 years. This is the most basic constitutional function of the census. Changing that deadline would require congressional approval and could complicate the process of redrawing the lines of representational districts.
These challenges are significant, but a strong performance during the self-response period will mitigate them. PPIC will be monitoring and providing key analysis of the self-response process to help ensure that the state is in the best possible position before the follow-up period begins.