U.S. Census Bureau Responds to COVID-19 Outbreak

The U.S. Census Bureau announced on Saturday, March 21 that it was adapting or delaying some census operations in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Key adjustments include:

  • The self-response phase is extended from July 31 to August 14.
  • The start of the non-response follow up and re-interview is delayed, now starting on May 28 and going to August 14. This involves census takers interviewing households in person who have not responded online, by phone, or by mail.
  • Service-Based Enumeration is delayed, now starting on April 29 and going to May1. This census operation involves counting people who are experiencing homelessness by reaching out to service providers such as shelters, soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans, and targeted outdoor locations (see Memo, 3/9).
  • Census takers also count people experiencing homelessness who are living under bridges, in parks, in all-night businesses, etc. This operation is delayed until May 1.
  • Census takers count people living in transitory locations such as hotels, motels, RV parks, and campgrounds (see Memo, 3/9). This operation is delayed to April 23 through May 18.

Previously, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham issued a media release on March 18 addressing operational updates in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning March 18, in support of guidance on what can be done to help slow the spread of coronavirus, 2020 census field operations will be suspended for two weeks until April 1, 2020. The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census-taker positions.

Starting on May 28, census takers will begin visiting households that have not yet responded to the 2020 census to help complete the count. (As of the morning of March 18, more than eleven million households have responded.) The Census Bureau will continue to monitor the evolving COVID-19 outbreak and will adjust census-taker and survey operations as necessary in order to follow the guidance of federal, state, and local health authorities.

The public is strongly encouraged to respond to the 2020 census online using a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet. The public can also respond by phone or mail. Everyone should respond to the 2020 census as soon as they receive their invitation.

In response to the Census Bureau announcement, the co-chairs of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force released a statement agreeing that temporarily suspending field operations for the 2020 census is the right decision for now.

A Leadership Council email to advocates indicated that the suspension of field operations until April 1, 2020 will have the following impacts: 

  • The update/leave operation, which is the hand-delivery of census packets to about 6.6 million primarily rural households plus most (but not all) American Indian reservations, will be stopped and delayed. That operation had just started on March 16.
  • Service-based Enumeration, which is one of the operations counting people experiencing homelessness, will be delayed; and
  • The required fingerprinting of candidates applying for 2020 census jobs will be stopped, meaning that further on-boarding and training of new census field staff will be delayed. 

During this period, households can still respond to the 2020 census and households in the update/leave universe that have not received their packets and want to respond can participate in the census using a non-ID response. It is critical to continue emphasizing the importance of responding to the census and how easy it is to do from home. 

The email to advocates notes that the Census Bureau is able to make necessary adaptations as needed at the local level for special operations as well. By now, many households have received an invitation in the mail to complete the census. This was planned and continues uninterrupted by the coronavirus. In addition, the census website 2020Census.gov is live and can accept responses in English and 12 non-English languages or by calling phone questionnaire assistance at: https://bit.ly/2U4NyCz

The statement from the co-chairs was sent on March 18, before the Census Bureau issued the date adjustments and delays listed above on March 22. Therefore, the July 31 references are outdated; the date is now August 14. The March 18 co-chairs statement states that state and congressional leaders, along with some organizations, have begun calling for the census response period to be “extended” or “delayed” due to concerns about the potential impact of the health emergency on the count. “There are numerous and difficult consequences to delaying census operations, and significant implications for data quality and the accuracy of the results,” the co-chairs write. “Moreover, because households can self-respond until July 31, it is too soon to know whether such action is necessary. And we worry about the impact on self-response these early calls for an extension might have. We believe these issues must be fully discussed, understood, and considered by Congress in consultation with the Bureau, stakeholders, and experts.”

The statement continues, “The Census Bureau already has flexibility on extending the enumeration timeframe, which it had planned to conclude on July 31 under normal circumstances. The self-response period will provide the Census Bureau and stakeholders with information on how much additional time beyond July 31 may be needed. However, the further away from Census Day, April 1 (the date set in law) data are collected, the greater the impact on data quality and consistency, so these decisions must be made with consideration for the consequences.”

There are two deadlines for reporting decennial census data in statute, and Congress would need to pass legislation that the president would sign (or override a presidential veto) to change either one:

  • First, the Census Bureau must report the state population totals used for congressional apportionment to the president by December 31, 2020, for the president to transmit to the clerk of the House of Representatives after the new Congress convenes in January.
  • Second, the Census Bureau must transmit to each state its respective Redistricting Data Files (which are also made public) by April 1, 2021. The bureau does that on a rolling basis as the files are available and depending on the states that need the data first for off-year state legislative elections.

Moving back either of these deadlines would have a dramatic ripple-effect throughout the political system.

The co-chairs of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force are Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund, John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC, and Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The March 21 Census Bureau adjusted and delayed information is at: https://bit.ly/33HfUWG

The Census Bureau’s March 18 media release is at: https://bit.ly/3a1mWb7

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Task Force statement is at: https://bit.ly/2WpFBJG

The 2020 Census homepage is at: https://bit.ly/3b7lTpZ

The Leadership Conference’s special Census Counts website has a vast trove of resources at: https://censuscounts.org