The 2020 Census is moving right along, although the ordinary schedule has been thrown out the window. More than 56 percent of American households have already self-responded (mostly online), despite and/or because of the COVID-19 crisis, but the U.S. Census Bureau has had to postpone most field operations since mid-March and the Trump Administration has had to request a change to the statutory deadlines (13 U.S. Code § 141) for reporting census data, to fit with their proposed revised timeline of decennial operations. Meanwhile, although the Insights Association submitted a funding request for Fiscal Year 2021 via testimony on March 16, Congress has been on hiatus since March, the appropriations committees have not indicated if or when they will consider legislation, and the FY21 legislation for the Census Bureau may need to include extra funds for the Census Bureau since much of the 2020 Census operations look likely to seep into the FY21.
Prolonged 2020 Census schedule
The Bureau has extended the “self-response” period, in which households are encouraged to respond on their own (via the web, telephone or mail), until October 31 (it was originally scheduled to end on July 31), hoping to count as many home as possible without involving COVID-risky interactions. All the usual field operations are being adjusted as well, with some of the counting emphasizing administrative data and others necessarily holding off until various states and localities declare that it is safe to run them.
On the bright side, the Bureau announced on May 4 it was phasing in the restart of certain operations, such as Update Leave: " the Census Bureau will resume dropping off 2020 Census invitation packets at front doors of households in areas where the majority of households do not receive mail at their home.”
However, delayed operations mean that the final data will also be delayed, both in terms of delivering it for use by researchers like those in our industry, and for its primary Constitutional requirements: redistricting. According to the statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, "In order to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau is seeking statutory relief from Congress of 120 additional calendar days to deliver final apportionment counts. Under this plan, the Census Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to October 31, 2020, which will allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021."
The Insights Association is obviously not thrilled with the delayed operations or reporting. The farther we get from Census Day – April 1 – the farther we get from the day upon which the 2020 Census is asking a household who was residing there on that day. Recall issues, particularly with the added chaos of the pandemic and lockdowns, could potentially hurt the accuracy of data. The delays in reporting of 2020 Census data will likely be problematic for redistricting Congressional and state legislative districts, but also make the data that much more stale by the time it makes it into the hands of our industry.
Still, we understand and appreciate the public health concerns, both for Census Bureau field staff and for respondents who may be the subject of non-response follow up (NRFU), so there is not much to do on this front.
With all the COVID-19 delays of decennial operations, the decennial headcount is bound to cost substantially more than planned. The Bureau’s accountants estimate that the additional cost of coping with COVID-19 (e.g., protective gear for field staff, extra equipment for added staff, additional advertising, and extended office leases) and the extended operational timeline, will be $1.5 billion. This can theoretically be covered by the Bureau’s estimated $2 billion in contingency funds, but IA would prefer that Congress supplement decennial funding ASAP, since Congress is mostly on hiatus and will be unlikely to be able to respond quickly if 2020 Census operations need a quick cash infusion.
With our testimony already submitted to the House for FY21 funding, we expect to be signing onto a Census Project coalition letter soon with our full appropriations request. Still, the Senate only returned this week and is mostly focused on pandemic program oversight and lingering nominations, and we don’t know when the House plans to reconvene. Therefore, the normal appropriations schedule is even more unclear than usual.
In the meantime, as the crisis unfolds, the Insights Association urges all our members to ensure that their own and their employees’ households have been counted via self-response, and continuing to get involved in helping the rest of the country get counted.