Coronavirus Risks Depressing U.S. Census Participation, Accuracy

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

The spread of the novel coronavirus is stoking worries about another potential casualty: the accuracy of this year’s Census, which may need a deadline extension.

The decennial count is slated to begin on a national scale March 12 and for the first time will be conducted primarily online. Lawmakers are concerned about contingency plans if a mass quarantine hinders door-to-door efforts still needed to count millions of people who don’t respond via the internet, mail, or phone.

The stakes of an accurate census are high. About $1.5 trillion in federal spending hinges on Census counts. And 17 states are estimated to add or lose congressional representatives. Legal deadlines mandate delivery of the Census to the president in December and to the states in March 2021 so redistricting can begin.

“If we get into a shutdown situation like Italy, where you can’t go door to door or do your enumeration, then we should have an emergency plan to extend it to a later day,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney(D-N.Y.) said in a hallway interview Monday.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) raised security concerns over online census form after hearing on Feb. 12, 2020.

Maloney said she’s working on a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau asking about contingency plans in the event of an emergency. That would follow a similar letter sent last week by 17 senators who said they’re concerned the virus outbreak will make it harder to recruit and retain as many as half a million of door-to-door Census-takers the bureau plans to employ.

The census is estimating about 60 percent of households will self-respond via internet, phone and mail, but that would still mean about 61 million households would need door-to-door visits, according to testimony from the Government Accountability Office to Maloney’s committee Feb. 12

“You can bleed through a recruitment base very, very quickly in hiring enumerators for that,” J. Christopher Mihm, a managing director at GAO testified at the hearing, which did not touch on coronavirus concerns.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and ranking member Gary Peters(D-Mich.) said in interviews and emails that their staffs had been reaching out to the Census to monitor the situation.

Lawmakers Tuesday also questioned Wilbur Ross, head of the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, about coronavirus contingency plans at a House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the department’s budget. Ross said the department has a fusion center at the bureau’s headquarters monitoring all threats, including the outbreak, 24 hours a day. That center would alert a crisis management team to issues that arise.

“We will deal with the situation as it evolves,” Ross said.

The count has “procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said on Feb. 25 in a statement. “We will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date.”

Cyber, Immigration Worries

Lawmakers also worry that transmission fears could depress responses, already central to bipartisan congressional concerns. A government watchdog report last month outlined significant concerns about the the bureau’s recruitment efforts, as well as cybersecurity and the operational capacity of the bureau’s new online systems. Disinformation campaigns circulating online that aim to confuse citizens to solicit donations or information also have surfaced, the Government Accountability Office has said.

For example, Maloney in a letter last week had called on the Republican National Committee to stop sending out surveys with titles and formats that looked like the official Census.

The Trump administration’s unsuccessful attempt to add a question about citizenship to the decennial survey has fueled worries among local and state officials that non-citizens and undocumented migrants won’t respond to the count. That’s because some may fear immigration enforcement, even if they or their children can qualify for benefits ultimately funded by the count’s results.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House Census oversight subcommittee, said the Census could act on its own to give enumerators more time to canvass communities, a process to begin in May and end July 31. The bureau may also increase its use of other government records and statistical analysis to fill in gaps from unresponsive households.

The Census should ask Congress for supplemental funding if needed to carry out the count, as well as an extension if needed, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.

Top