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Census 2020 a major paper fail, agency says

By Jim Haigh/U.S. Census Bureau, Thursday, July 22, 2021

The first results of our nation’s latest population count were released recently, and with the slowest population growth in 90 years, will have far-reaching consequences for many aspects of American life.

The census will drive decision-making on many fronts for the next decade from congressional representation and federal funding for local communities to allocations for emergency preparedness and business planning.

With so much at stake, was the shift away from paper-based data collection a wise move for Census 2020? Based on the less-than-robust response rate, the answer is a resounding no.

For generations, Americans received and overwhelmingly replied to census questionnaires by mail. In 2000 and 2010, 74 percent of households used paper forms to self-report to the U.S. Census Bureau. Historical success notwithstanding, the experts who designed the constitutionally mandated 2020 census -- well before the pandemic began -- took a giant leap of digital faith. By design, instead of providing every household a paper questionnaire to fill out along with the option to go online, the government decided that eight in 10 households would not be sent a paper questionnaire at the outset.

Instead, households were mailed “invitations to participate” online (or phone) – in envelopes identical in size and external message as those sent to those who received a physical questionnaire to fill out.

When most people failed to go online or call, they were mailed reminder after reminder to go online, only finally receiving a paper form with the fourth or fifth correspondence. As a result, hundreds of thousands of government head-counters were needed to go door to door – during a pandemic.

And if no one were home or able to come to the door, census-takers left a notice with information about how to respond, you guessed it, online or by phone.

The overall self-response rate for the 2020 census stalled at 67 percent. The Census Bureau reports that there were 128.5 million U.S. households in 2020. That means 33 percent or 42.4 million households and all the people that live in those households needed to be tracked down in person (during a pandemic) or estimated into the 2020 census numbers.

We will never know how many Americans among those 42.4 million households failed to self-report to the census because they couldn’t or wouldn’t go online, but the figure is likely more than a rounding error.

Nor will we know how significant societal and business decisions will be influenced as a result. Would the loss of congressional seats by some states and gains by others be different if everyone had access to a paper census questionnaire from the start? Will resources for basic community needs – new schools, hospitals, transportation, and housing – go where they are most needed?

If there is one immediate lesson to take away from Census 2020, it is that people need more options in how they send and receive important information, with the default being the most easily and universally accessible option – paper.

Those who cannot or choose not to access the internet, for whatever reason, should not be disadvantaged. The societal costs of exclusion are just too high.