On April 1, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau unveiled a flood of press releases and ads. The agency also received increased media coverage and posted more frequently on social media than usual. It was Census Day, the official date for which your place of residence is recorded for the 2020 Census. While not everyone completes the census form by April 1, it asks every American to indicate where they lived on April 1 for the sake of consistency.
This year, Census Day occurred at an exceptional time in the United States, and the impacts of COVID-19 on the process have quickly drowned out reports regarding the census’s political implications, staffing, and funding. As would-be census takers are subject to stay-at-home orders and awareness initiatives in hard-to-count neighborhoods are delayed, the federally mandated deadline for reporting the census’s results, December 31, 2020, increasingly looks daunting.
Massachusetts, which lost a seat in the House of Representatives after the 2010 Census, has as much of a reason as any other state to ensure an accurate count. It’s also home to a disproportionate number of college students, whose in-person classes were largely cancelled by April 1. Students, prisoners, homeless people, and vacation homeowners may be living in a different location than usual because of COVID-19, causing confusion about whether they should be counted in a given place. While it’s quite unlikely that Massachusetts will lose another seat in the House after the 2020 count, an undercount would still have enormous implications for federal funding, local businesses, and equity.
There’s also the potential for COVID-19-related delays to exacerbate the difficulty of counting communities that are rural, economically disadvantaged, or contain a large concentration of immigrants. With a little over half of the projected population counted so far, there are already stark differences in the portion of residents counted in different Massachusetts communities (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: 2020 census self-response rate among Massachusetts’ largest cities, as of May 12
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
In recent decades, the Census Bureau has relied on in-person follow-up with canvassers to count up to 40 percent of the population. This year, it aimed to count most people via an online form, with mail-in forms and phone surveys serving as supplementary self-response methods. COVID-19 will likely increase the census’s reliance on these methods, and the online program has been a success so far, with 59 percent of the nation counted as of May 12. In 2010, 68.8 percent of Massachusetts residents were counted with self-response methods in total. However, in-person, door-to-door interviews have been delayed, and in some cases may occur as late as October. Before COVID-19, they were scheduled to wrap up by July.
In 1920, the last time the census occurred during a major pandemic flu, the results were far worse than mere delays. Numerous localities protested the census’s population tallies as being too low, necessitating substantial recounts. In a nation still geographically divided by race, class, and ideology, a botched 2020 census could deprive vulnerable communities of funding and disrupt the balance of political power in unpredictable ways. COVID-19 has only made the need to address the census’s flaws more dire.
Andrew Mikula is the Lovett & Ruth Peters Economic Opportunity Fellow at the Pioneer Institute. Research areas of particular interest to Mr. Mikula include urban issues, affordability, and regulatory structures. Mr. Mikula was previously a Roger Perry Government Transparency Intern at the Institute and studied economics at Bates College.