Coronavirus Adds Another Challenge To Beleagured 2020 Census

Mar 12, 2020
Originally published on March 12, 2020 9:17 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After more than a decade of planning, today households will start to get information about how to participate in the 2020 census. It is a massive effort to count every single person living in this country. It requires expertise, billions of dollars and trust from the public. The coronavirus, of course, adds another challenge. Hansi Lo Wang is NPR's resident expert on all things census, and he joins us now from New York. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with the coronavirus. What is the Census Bureau doing to protect census workers and the public?

WANG: The Census Bureau says it's ready to change its plans depending on the situation. Its outreach workers are holding meetings over the phone rather than in person. And it's prepared to delay sending out census workers later this year in outbreak areas. But the main strategy for now is the bureau is encouraging every household to fill out a form themselves. Do it from home; no contact with other people needed. You can do it on my2020census.gov, over the phone or mail back a paper form if you get one.

MARTIN: So let's get to this issue of trust because it's a big deal for a lot of people worried about their privacy, right? How is the Census Bureau - how does it make sure people's information is protected?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau is required by federal law to keep people's information confidential, specifically information that identifies individuals. That cannot be released by the Census Bureau for 72 years. But, of course, the question is will certain members of the public trust the Trump administration to uphold these laws? There's a history, if we're going back to World War II, of Congress lifting up similar protections in the name of national security. The government has apologized for this, but that led to the wrongful incarceration of more than 100,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent.

Another thing to take into account here is this is going to be the first primarily online census, so you have the risk of data getting hacked by someone trying to disrupt the census, any potential foreign actors. And because the census is going online, the bureau says it is working with Department of Homeland Security as well as federal intelligence agencies to monitor this very closely. But this will be a very big test.

MARTIN: Right. So what if the public doesn't trust the process, doesn't trust the Census Bureau? What does that mean for the actual count?

WANG: This is always a challenge when we're talking about the census. And the thing to keep in mind here is that research shows that self-response - that is, people voluntarily giving their information - is the most accurate way to gather data. And what could happen here is that the bureau could get really bad data if people do not respond and if people decide that they do not want to take part in this. And the bureau will have to rely on, for example, existing records to try to fill in the gaps.

MARTIN: And what's the problem with bad data? I mean, what's the purpose of the census in the first place?

WANG: This is about distributing congressional seats, Electoral College votes among the states and an estimated at $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for health care, schools and roads. This forms a foundation for how we divide up power and money in the country, and we only do it once every 10 years.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks, Hansi. We appreciate it.

WANG: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.