Less than two weeks remain for the Census Bureau to complete its count of every person living in the United States and five U.S. territories. It's the 24th time that the country has counted its population since 1790, but Census 2020 faces challenges like never before: a pandemic, wildfires, a recession, and intense partisanship. There are internal struggles going on as well, from headquarters in D.C. to local offices here in the Triad.
The U.S. Constitution mandates the census every ten years, and that critically important data is used by lawmakers, business owners, teachers, researchers, and countless others to provide daily services, products, and support nationwide. For those reasons and a looming September 30th deadline, one local census worker is sounding the alarm. He asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal.
“The likelihood of them getting an accurate, complete count at this point is nonexistent,” he says.
His office oversees more than a dozen counties in the Piedmont, training census takers (also known as enumerators) and responding to directives from the Atlanta and D.C. Census Bureaus. He says job turnover there has been very high, leaving them with roughly half of the staff needed, and the math just doesn't add up.
“So, if you've got to hire 1,800 people and you can only train them three at a time, and it takes an hour and a half for each training session and you only have 80 people available that can do it, you can't do it,” he says.
The stakes are high. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding are all based on census data. And the political implications are huge, as well. Census results determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, and they're also used to draw congressional and state legislative districts.
Recent moves to allow census-taking by phone for the first time may help make up some ground, but he says other challenges remain. First, technical problems: badly outdated training manuals, malfunctioning data collecting equipment, and competing enrollment software that further delays hiring. Then there's the difficulty of filling management positions.
“You see, they're taking enumerators, turning them into supervisors, and then giving them twenty people they're supposed to manage out in the field to do their job correctly, when in fact they've never done the job,” he says. “We have people doing field observations of enumerators that not only failed their assessment scores but did worse than the person they're evaluating.”
He says enumerators make between $17 to $19 an hour depending on the county, and yet they continue to leave in droves out of pure frustration. iPhones they're issued to turn in data don't work, calls to tech support go unanswered, all the while field managers and supervisors demand more door knocks.
U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson Virginia Hyer says that while turnover in a census environment is natural, she's satisfied with where they are at this point.
“We have census takers who are completing more cases in an hour than we had expected them to do so previously,” says Hyer. “So, we are absolutely committed to a complete and accurate 2020 Census and we do have the workforce that we need. We've also seen higher self-response rates, which requires less census takers to go door-to-door.”
Current numbers being released by the national office would appear to bear that out. They show that the U.S. Census Bureau has counted nearly 84% of North Carolina's households and roughly 90% nationwide. When asked to respond to the dire predictions of undercounting here, Hyer says it's too soon to tell, but they'll continue working toward a complete and accurate count across all communities.
“We don't just send a census taker there once or twice,” she says. “We send them there up to six times to get a count of that household, so Forsyth County, Winston-Salem can get the resources that they need for the next ten years because the census is going to impact Winston-Salem's future going forward.”
With all counting efforts shortened by one month, the bureau now has just two weeks left to try to reach undercounted groups who are less likely to fill out a census form on their own: people of color, rural residents, immigrants, and renters. Rebecca Tippett directs UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center. She says COVID-19 costs, hurricane and fire displacements, and now a shortened time window have created a perfect storm for undercounts.
“The concern in this current environment where we're cutting short the door knockings and we're also cutting short the time to calculate the population and the statistical methods on the back end because Congress has not approved the bureau's request for an extension to produce those numbers, that we will see undercounts in communities that are not currently well-counted,” says Tippett.
Forsyth and Guilford Counties have among the highest self-response rates in the state at roughly 65%, but they're below 2010's numbers. Nationally, according to the Census Bureau's recent estimates, it will need to visit 56 million more addresses to achieve an accurate and complete count.