The NCSL Blog


By Lesley Kennedy

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Count everyone once, only once and in the right place.

Ron Jarmin, acting director, U.S. Census BureauThat’s the rallying cry of the U.S. Census Bureau, which will soon embark on the 2020 Census, the decennial count of every resident in the nation. And the data collected is vital, says Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s acting director.

“The census data are used to apportion Congress, to draw district boundaries within states and to share out just under $700 billion in federal funds to state and local governments,” he says.

Jarmin was part of a panel discussion titled “The Census: What’s All the Fuss About?” during the recent NCSL Capitol Forum. He says a key to getting an accurate count is to motivate people to not only respond, but to self-respond.

“Self-response is important not just because it’s cheaper and more efficient than sending people out into the field to ask questions at the doorstep, but the data are more accurate,” he says. “… For those who don’t respond (around 40 percent of the population), we’re going to have to put boots on the ground and send people knocking on doors.”

Jarmin says technology will mark a significant change to the 2020 census. “Before, this was a mail out, mail back operation where we sent you a census form, hopefully you didn’t throw it away and you would respond to it and mail it back to us,” he says. Now, you’ll be able to respond via computer, smartphone or tablet, as well as by telephone or the traditional paper form.

The technology will be used in the non-response follow-up operation, as well. “So, rather than walking around with a paper form and asking you questions, our enumerators will be doing that with a phone,” he says, adding that a test done earlier this year in Providence, R.I. showed a 50 percent increase in productivity when enumerators used phones to collect data door-to-door.

“With a tight labor market, knowing that our enumerators are going to be 50 percent more productive in the field than they were in 2010 is comforting when we have to go out and hire 350,000 temporary workers with the unemployment rate as low as it is right now,” Jarmin adds.

Another difference in the 2020 Census: the citizenship question. Reinstated by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and now being deliberated in U.S. District Court, the citizenship status has not been asked on the census form mailed to all households since 1950.

Angela Monso, director of policy and legislative affairs at the nonprofit NALEO Educational Fund, says the 2010 Census count missed a lot of Latinos and a significant portion of Latino children under the age of 5.

“With the decision to add the citizenship question, we are much more concerned that we will not have an accurate count,” she says, adding that it goes beyond whether someone is documented or undocumented, noting that many Latinos reside in mixed-status households. “You have American citizen children, you may have a spouse who has a green card and you may have the other spouse who is undocumented,” she says. “When one of the members of the household takes themselves out of the count, they are very likely to take entire family out of the count. That is significant information for communities you all represent.”

Monso says her group is hopeful that through legislation and the courts, the citizenship question can be addressed. “We want to get back to making sure there are sufficient funds available to ensure an accurate count,” she says. “We want to keep this non-political. … We want to make sure that Latinos are counted.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, project consultant for the Census 2000 Initiative, says she has every confidence that the Census Bureau will do the best job it can with the resources it has and the constraints it’s been handed. She is, however, increasingly worried that a growing number of challenges could threaten to create a perfect storm in 2020.

One in particular: disinformation campaigns. “This is the first census that’s going to take place in an environment of social media,” she says, adding that she’s already seen efforts to put out misinformation about who should be counted and what the government will do with the information it collects, possibly to keep some people from participating. “In my opinion, the best way to counter disinformation campaigns—it’s very hard—is to drown them out. The more people there are speaking up with correct information, I think the more successful the Census Bureau can be.”

And, don’t forget, she adds, we will be right in the middle of what many assume will be a contentious presidential campaign.

“We really need all hands on deck,” she says. “And I think the time to mobilize is now. Yesterday. … This is one opportunity to set aside partisan differences and try to really partner with your counterparts from the aisle and make it clear to your constituents why it’s important and why it’s safe to participate.”

Lesley Kennedy is a web editor at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.