My Census angst is strong

counting the whole number of persons in each State

census2020-storyimageMy Census angst is multifaceted. As a librarian – retired, but still – I have come to count on the statistics that the Census Bureau provides.

An article in The Atlantic by an enumerator rings true. “In an ideal census count, all households would submit their own information, which is by far the most accurate way to account for a community’s true demographic makeup.”

In 2020, 67% of addresses were accounted for through self-response to date, with the rest having been accounted for through the Nonresponse Followup (NRFU) operation. I said to my friends that, optimally, I would have had no Census enumeration to do because everyone would have returned their form via mail, phone, or, for the first time, online.

Why was this so Census so difficult? “That lag between early May, when door-knocking was supposed to start, and August, when it did, [mattered]… Accurately completing a census case means knowing who lived at an address on April 1, 2020, whether that information is taken from a resident or, oftentimes, a neighbor. The further you stray from the reference day, the less accurate the data become, particularly in a time of heavier population displacement.”

Also true. “Resistance to census participation transcends age, race, geography, and party affiliation.” The stories I could tell IF I could tell…

Not ha-ha funny

“What’s funniest about trying and failing to persuade someone to give you 10 minutes of their time for the census is that an enumerator has to document the reason given for a refusal. One rationale is that it gives the next person who attempts to bug a stubborn case a sense of what might be coming.” Oh, yes.

“In our data-capture app, many of the prefilled explanations we must enter for why we failed to gather data are unusually blunt: The respondent ‘does not want to be bothered’; thinks the ‘survey is a waste of taxpayer money’; has ‘privacy,’ ‘COVID,’ or ‘anti-government’ concerns; or is simply ‘too busy.'” Except for the “too busy” people, I never got a positive response from a previous refusal.

“Even if residents were clearly home, they often didn’t come to the door.” I thought it was just me.

“Ater a certain number of attempts on a case, enumerators are instructed to find a proxy—a neighbor, a mail carrier, a building manager, anyone vaguely credible—to speak on the composition of the residence in question.” This was easier in a multi-dwelling building than in single-story homes. And it was also more successful regarding structures that were vacant, or no longer there, on April 1.

“And in many cases, with enough luck, patience, or cajoling, somebody helps fill in the most basic blank of the census: how many people live at an address.” You’d be surprised, though, how many people would not even provide THIS information, even when they let me know that they knew the answer. “It’s fair to say that this arrangement isn’t the sturdiest blueprint for democratic representation.”


The Supreme Court heard arguments on November 30 about whether undocumented immigrants may be purged from the census rolls when apportioning seats in Congress. I don’t understand how this can happen, for two separate reasons. Excluding them would be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which calls for “counting the whole number of persons in each State.” The attempt to make them invisible is as offensive as the three-fifths compromise in the original Constitution.

Beyond that, though, I literally don’t know this would work logistically. Asking the citizenship question was blocked by the Supreme Court. If there’s no Census question, what is the source of the data to exclude them? And it should be granular numbers down to the Census tract for reapportionment purposes, not just statewide guesstimates.

In The Atlantic article: “Sometimes, when an American told me they were Hispanic, they’d rush to adamantly assure me that they were a legal U.S. citizen too.” The efforts to have a citizenship question included in the Census, though it was rejected, succeeded in creating fear in the immigrant community so they wouldn’t participate in the count as robustly.

Keep going?

On November 17, a Boston Globe editorial declared the courts must protect the 2020 Census. “Federal judges should extend the deadline to ensure an accurate count. The problem now would be to remobilize a workforce of tens of thousands of temporary workers to attempt a task even further from the April 1 Census date.

Census reports it reached more than 99%  of the addresses in each state.

When I read reports that Census workers were reportedly told to submit false information, it broke my heart. I should note, as an enumerator myself that I witness no such manipulation. Indeed, there were constant reminders of what NOT to do. Don’t get data from those online companies. Surely, though, there was pressure to get done as quickly, but accurately as possible.

Note that The U.S. Census Bureau has announced this week updated plans for releasing information about quality, along with the first results from the census, “including releasing an unprecedented number of data quality indicators.”