Census 2020: Achieving a Complete Count During a Pandemic
This research was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Inc., and we thank them for their support; however, the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.
TOTAL 2020 CENSUS SELF-RESPONSE RATES
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the ability of county governments across America to deliver core services, especially community health, human services, transportation, justice and public safety. Elected leaders and frontline staff must balance the need to maintain these services with addressing the health and welfare of communities during the outbreak. While county leaders and the American public focus on issues like social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) or remote learning, another important event is happening on an almost parallel track to the pandemic: the 2020 Census.
With nearly a trillion dollars in federal funding apportioned each year based on Census results, an accurate, complete count is crucial to county governments and residents.1 Local leaders and Complete Count Committees across the nation had been preparing to address a standard set of challenges to achieve a comprehensive count, such as developing relationships with hard to count populations. No county government or Complete Count Committee, however, was prepared for a global pandemic that would halt Census field operations, restrict public gatherings and, for a time, place most of the country under stay at home orders.
As counties face the challenge of economic recovery and prepare for future surges in coronavirus cases, the importance of the Census and its impact on county governments is evident. This brief provides an overview of changes to the 2020 Census operational timeline and an analysis of county performance thus far during the self-response period. This brief also identifies common themes from county leaders and subject matter experts on how the pandemic has impacted local Census efforts, how local leaders have adjusted their strategies to respond and what obstacles may limit an accurate and complete count.
The 2020 Census self-response period – when households across America would complete the Census online, via mail or via phone – was initially scheduled to run from March 12 to July 31. On March 12, 140 million households nationwide began receiving initial invitations to complete the Census. On March 18, in response to the burgeoning outbreak, the Census Bureau suspended all field operations until April 1, a date that was subsequently pushed back to April 15. The suspension of field operations came when Census Bureau field offices were supposed to be at "peak operations." During this period, field offices should have been hiring and training staff, and planning for the non-response follow-up period when Census Bureau enumerators (commonly referred to as “Census takers”) visit households that have not yet responded. The halt in operations also came just as the Census Bureau had kicked off the update leave process, where Census takers drop off invitations to the roughly 5 million households nationwide (plus 1.7 million households in Puerto Rico) that do not receive mail their physical homes.
As the coronavirus outbreak escalated into a pandemic, and much of American life remained closed, the 2020 Census operational timeline continued to be pushed back. On August 3, the Census Bureau announced an updated operational timeline, including the following key changes:2
These operational timeline changes coincided with a phased restart of field operations, including completing the process of hiring non-response field staff and resuming the update leave process starting the week of May 4. As of June 5, 247 of 248 Area Census Offices had resumed operations, more than 90 percent of field operations staff had returned to work3 and 73 percent of the update leave workload was complete.4
With field operations delayed three full months, the Census Bureau has acknowledged that there is no way it can complete an accurate and complete count while meeting the current deadlines to deliver apportionment counts to the President or redistricting counts to the states. The Census Bureau requested that the deadline for apportionment counts move from December 31, 2020 to April 30, 2021, and the deadline for redistricting counts change from April 1, 2021 to July 31, 2021. Both changes require Congressional approval and have not yet been authorized.
Even with the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic presented for counties, Complete Count Committees, and the Census Bureau, the self-response period exceeded expectations. By July 28, the national self-response rate rose to 62.7 percent, representing 92.7 million household responses, exceeding the Census Bureau’s projection rate of 60.5 percent for the entire self-response period.5 Through July 28, the five highest-performing states – Minnesota (72.1 percent), Wisconsin (69.4 percent), Iowa (68.7 percent), Nebraska (68.7 percent) and Michigan (68.6 percent) – all had response rates exceeding the 2010 Census national self-response rate of 66.5 percent. On the other hand, the five lowest-performing states – Vermont (56.4 percent), Maine (54.6 percent), West Virginia (54.3 percent), New Mexico (52.6 percent) and Alaska (49.1 percent) – had self-response rates below 55 percent. Puerto Rico’s self-response rate sat lowest at 27.1 percent.6
For the first time, the 2020 Census can be completed online in addition to its previous mail and phone options. The high response collection rate in the middle of the pandemic may be a direct result of the online response option. More than half (50.1 percent) of all responses received by July 28 used the online option, as opposed to submitting responses through the mail or over the phone.7 “We are delighted that the internet option has been going so well,” said Jeri Green, 2020 Census Senior Advisor for the National Urban League. “We feared that there would be some type of cyber-attack or information breach that could interfere with the Census, but thankfully that has not happened.”
Despite the strong start, growth in the self-response rate is beginning to slow, increasing only 2.4 percentage points from May 21 to July 22, and concerns remain about hard to count populations. “The self-response rate has met Census Bureau expectations, but many of the households that have been counted are the ones that would have been counted previously,” says Diana Elliott, Principal Research Associate at the Urban Institute. “The strong early performance does not include gains for populations that were already considered hard to count prior to the pandemic.” Moreover, the Census Bureau’s self-response rate in 2010 was 66.5 percent, so even though the national response rate surpassed its goal of 60.5 percent, it still falls short of performance in 2010.
2020 CENSUS SELF-RESPONSE RATES OVER THE INTERNET
More than half (50.1 percent) of all responses received by July 28 used the online option, as opposed to submitting responses through the mail or over the phone.
According to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, the self-response rate in census tracts with a plurality of Black and Hispanic residents (51.6 percent and 54.4 percent, respectively), is lower than the self-response rate in census tracts with a plurality of White and Asian residents (66 percent and 64 percent, respectively).8 The impact of these different levels of participation is evident in counties with cities that have sizeable Black and Hispanic populations, where the city’s self-response rate often lags behind the county. The self-response rate in Jefferson County (Ala.) is 61.9 percent. However, the self-response rate in Birmingham, a city that comprises roughly one-third of Jefferson County's population, sits at 51.8 percent. This pattern holds in Wayne County (Mich.), where Detroit’s self-response rate is just 48.2 percent compared to the county’s 63.5 percent; Miami-Dade County (Fla.), where Miami’s self-response rate of 48.8 percent trails the county’s 57.3 percent self-response rate; and Los Angeles County (Calif.), where the city’s 52.1 percent self-response rate is below the county’s self-response rate of 58.6 percent.
Counties with higher minority populations tended to have lower overall self-response rates. The average self-response rate of the 101 counties in which 50 percent or more of the population is African American is 48.5 percent, which is 13.9 percentage points lower than the national self-response rate. The average self-response rate of the 103 counties in which 50 percent or more of residents are Hispanic American is 43.8 percent, which is 18.6 percentage points lower than the national self-response rate. The average self-response rate of the 28 counties in which 50 percent or more residents are Native American is 22.9 percent, which is 39.5 percentage points lower than the national self-response rate.
Through July 22, the average response rate for census tracts with other historically hard to count populations trailed national averages as well. Counties that are at high-risk for undercounting include: (1) those with a large share of young children (where more than a quarter of residents are under the age of 14), which have an average self-response rate of 46.9 percent; (2) those with a high poverty rate (over 25 percent), which have an average self-response of 47.7 percent; and (2) those with lower high school graduation rates (under 75 percent), which have an average self-response rate of 45.1 percent.
One in Three Counties Exceed the National Self-Response Rate, But Performance Varies by Region and Population Size
As of July 22, 32 percent of counties nationwide exceeded the national self-response rate.9
Midwest counties are leading in self-response rates across any region: approximately two-thirds (66 percent) of all Midwest counties are above the national rate. Conversely, in the South, only 26 percent of all Southern counties outpace the national average. Western counties have not fared much better, since only 28 percent of Western counties exceed the national average. Northeast counties, however, are performing closer to Midwest counties, with about half (50 percent) of all Northeastern counties outperforming the national average.
County Self Response Rates
|By Population Size|
In terms of county population size, smaller counties tend to have lower response rates than larger ones. In fact, only 24 percent of the 2,112 small counties nationwide have self-response rates above the national average. On the other hand, 53 percent of medium-sized counties and 68 percent of large counties exceed the national rate. Thirty-eight (38) percent of small counties have self-response rates below 50 percent, compared to 9 percent of medium-sized counties, and only one large county.
The pandemic has impacted county-led Census efforts similarly regardless of size, type or region. Responding to the outbreak has required focused leadership that naturally deprioritized the Census. Previously developed outreach strategies became irrelevant, with in-person events canceled, and the capacity of key partners like school districts and libraries severely limited.
Local Leadership Focused on Pandemic
The attention of local Census leaders has focused on the pandemic response for the last three months, and many leaders are only now beginning to reassess Census efforts. In Umatilla County (Ore.), County Commissioner George Murdock leads the County’s Complete Count Committee. However, as the Board of County Commissioner's liaison for public health, his time is almost entirely consumed by the outbreak. “Our Complete Count Committee just recently had its first meeting since March,” said Commissioner Murdock. County Judge Jason Brinkley expressed a similar experience in Cooke County (Texas). "The Census became an afterthought," said Judge Brinkley. "We are a rural county, and everybody had to focus on their primary roles and new additional duties in response to the pandemic." Counties with more staff and resources dedicated to the Census were able to maintain more attention on the Census. Bryna Helfer, Assistant County Manager and Director of Communications and Public Engagement for Arlington County (Va.), has spent more time leading the County’s coronavirus communication efforts than focusing on the Census. However, with another senior administrator leading the effort with a team of five staff, the Census has remained a priority. “We have two issues: COVID-19 response and the Census,” said Ms. Helfer.
Outreach Events Cancelled
Even as the country begins to slowly reopen, most previously developed outreach and promotion strategies – especially those targeting hard to count communities – were based on in-person events and are no longer relevant. “We had an events-based strategy, working with partners like the Cleveland Foundation, with grant programs that supported events,” said Simeon Best, Program Administrator for Cuyahoga Counts in Cuyahoga County (Ohio). “We have primarily shifted to a social media strategy.” The Erie County (N.Y.) Complete Count Committee was expecting $500,000 in state funding to support events in hard to count communities. However, given New York's experience as the epicenter of America's coronavirus outbreak, local leaders are no longer anticipating any state grants. “Our process has completely flipped,” said Jason Hurley, Community Liaison for the Office of County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "Now, we need to figure out how to move forward without a physical presence.”
Partner Capacity Reduced
The pandemic severely impacted the focus and operational capacity of key partners, especially school districts and libraries. With a population of just over 40,000, Cooke County’s (Texas) approach depended on building awareness through the two school districts and area churches that serve its previously undercounted Hispanic community. But as those school districts had to figure out how to provide meals and curriculum to its students, Census efforts were justifiably deprioritized. Libraries nationwide were expected to play a massive role in local efforts. In places like Loudon County (Va.), Lake County (Mich.) and Ventura County (Calif.), library leaders are vital members of complete count committees. “Access to technology was a big part of what libraries anticipated doing," said Larra Clark, from the American Library Association. "The most common expectation was people using computers to complete the form. Even though library staff have been working, library buildings have been closed and capacity has been reduced because of furloughs and cuts.”
Counties have responded with a variety of creative solutions to further outreach in hard to count communities, develop messaging to communicate the importance of the Census and provide access to complete the Census online.
1. PROMOTE CENSUS MESSAGES AT LOCATIONS WITH INCREASED DEMAND AS A RESULT OF THE PANDEMIC.
2. UTILIZE INEXPENSIVE "LOW TECH” TACTICS IMPLEMENTED BY COMMUNITY-BASED ORGANIZATIONS, WHICH REMAIN TRUSTED MESSENGERS AMONG HARD TO COUNT COMMUNITIES.
3. DEVELOP MESSAGING THAT DIRECTLY CONNECTS THE PANDEMIC RESPONSE AND ITS IMPACT ON DAILY LIFE TO THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CENSUS.
4. USE SURGE MOMENTS AND TACTICAL EVENTS TO GAIN ATTENTION AND GENERATE PARTICIPATION SPIKES.
5. MAXIMIZE INTERNET ACCESS POINTS IN COMMUNITIES WITH LOWER RATES OF BROADBAND ACCESS.
6. LEVERAGE NEW PROCESSES, INFORMATION, AND PARTNERSHIPS THAT DEVELOPED TO RESPOND TO THE PANDEMIC.
As local leaders try to maximize self-response rates over the summer, county officials and advocates share several concerns about obstacles that could limit their hopes for a complete count. They are particularly concerned about the impact of a second wave of the coronavirus, safety during the enumeration process, the Census Bureau’s operational plan and the increasing potential for undercounts.
Second Wave of Pandemic Would Upend the Census
The single most significant concern is the potential for a second wave of the pandemic to spike when the enumeration process begins in August and September. Robert Santos from the Urban Institute suggests there are two likely scenarios for which counties should prepare now. “The COVID-19 environment could continue in drips or drabs,” he said, “or there could be a full-blown second wave of the pandemic and Census operations would shut down again. Is anybody willing to bet their strategy that there won’t be a second wave?” The Census Bureau has not yet provided any preliminary guidance on likely operational adjustments if there is a second wave. Local officials must use the summer to prepare open and restrictive engagement plans so that they can adjust quickly if a second wave emerges.
Census Taker and Household Safety May Limit Enumeration
Even if the pandemic does not resurge in the fall, county leaders are still concerned about whether Census takers will have enough PPE and whether residents will feel safe answering the door. “In certain locations that have high populations of communities of color and immigrants, people were not coming to the door,” said King County (Wash.) Assessor John Wilson. “That's probably gotten worse, and it’s going to be even harder moving forward.” Supervisor Fowler cited similar concerns in Coconino County (Ariz.). “We have lost more than 50 people who were previously hired as enumerators for Navajo Nation,” she said. “Hiring more field staff and making sure people have enough PPE is a greater challenge for the Navajo Nation than the rest of the County.” And in Umatilla County (Ore.), there is a new level of concern for engaging older residents, who often had higher participation rates. “We have a lot of senior citizens that have not left their homes,” said Commissioner Murdock. “Our efforts have been stifled by our inability to go door to door and make contact with our residents.”
Timeline Uncertainty Fogs Upcoming Election Cycles
The proposed timeline adjustment for delivering redistricting counts from April 1, 2021 to July 31, 2021 was the primary concern expressed by County officials due to the impact on election cycles. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, Virginia and New Jersey are scheduled to have legislative elections in 2021. They may need to use current district maps, while 21 states have redistricting deadlines that are fixed or linked to the Census year. "If states do not make the adjustments needed to complete redistricting on time, courts will need to intervene and draw temporary maps to ensure legally compliant districts for upcoming elections—a power they have exercised in the past. Depending on how long this process takes, courts may also need to adjust candidate filing periods and/or delay primary elections.”10 And while the impact of the delay on federal funding timelines was not as much of concern to as redistricting to most County leaders, it is still a legitimate concern. “In this kind of crisis,” said King County (Wash.) Assessor Wilson, “counties can get lost in the shuffle, and it is important that folks at the federal level understand that.”
Community Partners Could Lose Funding
Much of the day to day work to increase participation in hard to count communities is being performed by community-based organizations, many of which are small nonprofits without large staffs or budgets. The Census work these organizations are doing often relies on funding from local and state governments and local and regional philanthropies and funders. But many organizations are trying to figure out how they stretch funding intended to cover activities in efforts until July 31st, which may now have to be extended due to the new October 31st deadline. “Some organizations are funded to do this work only through July 31, including some of our own California subgrantees,” said Lizette Escobedo from NALEO Educational Fund. “We are expecting a potential drop off of outreach efforts in August because some organizations and efforts will not be able to continue past that date."
Increased Probability for an Undercount
Long before the Census got underway and the coronavirus outbreak emerged, many expected an undercount in 2020. The Urban Institute highlighted concerns that demographic shifts would likely make the 2020 count harder than it was in 2010. “Groups known to be hard to count—including complex households, renters, young children, immigrants and people of color—will represent a larger share of the population in 2020 than they did in 2010.”11 Low trust in government, fears about the citizenship question and lack of awareness are just a few of the other factors that many cited could lead to an undercount in 2020. The pandemic – and its limit on direct contact especially – has made connecting with hard to count groups even more difficult, which makes undercounts more likely for these populations.
Moving forward, counties and complete count committees can expect much uncertainty. The current state of the 2020 Census begs many questions:
- Will the lack of an overarching messaging strategy for the update leave process make rural counties more vulnerable for an undercount?
- Does the Census Bureau’s Atlanta Regional Office have enough capacity to support a full count in its seven-state territory, which is home to 58 percent of America’s Black population?
- Can future projections be improved so that federal funding allocations use increasingly accurate counts?
- How successful will counties be if they submit formal challenges to the Census Bureau's Count Question Resolution program, which will allow localities to challenge their count?
- How many counties will file lawsuits due to significant undercounts, and what evidential thresholds will be required to be successful?
With the challenges facing counties and complete count committees, the timeline adjustments provide three additional months to increase the self-response rate and reduce the need for enumerators to knock on residents’ doors. No specific prescription will work in each community, but there are a few general steps that every local Census effort can take throughout the summer:
- Focus on the lowest responding communities, especially those below 50 percent, and use tools like NACo’s County Explorer and the Center for Urban Research’s Hard to Count Maps, which can provide real-time census response data.
- Develop partnerships and messaging to maintain momentum in the fall, when the presidential election, and a potential second spike in coronavirus cases, will dominate traditional and social media.
- Ensure that outreach and engagement plans have a variety of options, from minimal restrictions on public gatherings to a new round of stay at home orders with full social distancing requirements.
- Establish partnerships with essential non-governmental organizations that can be trusted messengers for hard to count communities. Grocery stores, doctors’ offices and pharmacies are examples of private businesses that can remain open and interact with hard to count populations.
The work to achieve a complete and accurate count is daunting but necessary. As the nation moves into a recession and looks ahead towards an uncertain economic recovery, federal funding that supports core county services and vulnerable populations will be crucial. “As local county elected leaders, I cannot stress enough how the 2020 Census is more important than ever,” said Cook County (Ill.) Commissioner Stanley Moore, Chairman of the Complete Count Census Commission. "Billions of dollars of federal funding for roads, schools, small businesses, hospitals and emergency response is at stake. If we do not have a complete and accurate count, each of our counties is witnessing first-hand how the impact of the Census data has influenced the federal government's distribution of financial and emergency management resources to our areas to address the COVID-19 pandemic."
Special thanks to the following individuals for sharing their time and expertise:
- Cook County (Ill.) – The Hon. Stanley Moore, Commissioner
- King County (Wash.) – The Hon. John Wilson, County Assessor
- Coconino County (Ariz.) – The Hon. Lena Fowler, Supervisor
- Cooke County (Texas) – The Hon. Jason Brinkley, County Judge
- Umatilla County (Ore.) – The Hon. George Murdock, Commissioner
- King County (Wash.) – HeyEun Park, Census External Partnerships Program Manager
- Cuyahoga County (Ohio) – Simeon Best, Program Administrator, Cuyahoga Counts
- Umatilla County (Ore.) – Robert Waldher, Director of Land Use Planning
- Erie County (N.Y.) – Jason Hurley, Community Liaison
- Arlington County (Va.) – Bryna Helfer, Assistant County Manager and Director of Communications and Public Engagement
- National Urban League – Jeri Green, 2020 Census Senior Advisor
- NALEO Educational Fund – Lizette Escobedo, Director of National Census Program; Adán Chávez, Regional Census Manager
- American Library Association – Larra Clark, Deputy Director, Policy; Gavin Baker, Deputy Director, Public Policy and Government Relations
- Urban Institute – Diana Elliott, Principal Research Associate; Robert Santos, Vice President and Chief Methodologist
 George Washington Institute of Public Policy, "Fifty-five Large Federal Census-guided Spending Programs: Distribution by State," Counting for Dollars 2020: Report #5, May 2019
 Census Bureau. “Statement from U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham: Delivering a Complete and Accurate 2020 Census Count.” August 3, 2020.
, Based on a conference call with the Census Bureau on May 22, 2020.
 Census Bureau. “Census Bureau to Resume 2020 Census Field Operations in Additional Locations.” June 5, 2020.
 The self-response rate reflects the number of households that have completed the Census as a percentage of the Census Bureau's total addresses on file; the rate does not reflect the number of individuals who have participated.
 U.S. Census Bureau, “2020 Census Total Self-Response,” available at: https://public.tableau.com/profile/us.census.bureau#!/vizhome/2020CensusSelf-ResponseRankings/RankingsDashboard (July 30, 2020).
 Steven Romalewski, Mapping “Self-Response” for a Fair and Accurate Count. Center for Urban Research, June 19, 2020.
 The subsequent review reflects response rates from 3,067 counties because data was not available for Bristol Bay Borough or Lake and Peninsula Borough in Alaska.
 Rudensky, Li, et al. How Changes to the 2020 Census Will Impact Redistricting. Brennan Center for Justice, May 4, 2020.
 Elliot, Santos, et al. Assessing Miscounts in the 2020 Census. Urban Institute, June 2019.