COVID pandemic raises concerns about accurate 2020 census count

Robust participation and an accurate census count are crucial to AFT members and the communities where we work and live. The decennial count of everyone residing in the United States helps determine representation in Congress, and informs how federal funding and resources get allocated to states and localities for programs and services that are critical for schools, students and families.

Census 2020

As the new year began, the AFT and our community partners ramped up efforts to amplify the 2020 census to ensure a complete count. But by Census Day on April 1, the official beginning of the nationwide count, the country was in the middle of a massive shutdown to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“Before this pandemic, I had really big ideas for promoting the census with our students and families,” says Ingrid Gunnell, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles East Area board of directors. “I had ordered multiple copies of the children’s book We Count! to distribute widely to kids at schools in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. Unfortunately, before I even received the shipment of books, the pandemic hit and schools were closed.”

Though her big plans didn’t pan out, Gunnell says she has taken advantage of her school district’s grab-and-go meal distribution program to give out 600 copies, in just one day, of the colorful children’s book to families who showed up to pick up meals. We Count! is an interactive counting book with illustrations of diverse American families that explains how census data is used and why families benefit from being counted. It also provides simple, comprehensive guidance on counting households for the census.

The AFT was gifted 50,000 copies of this book, and affiliate leaders are encouraged to order copies—available in English or Spanish—to hand out now at food distribution sites, or later in the summer or fall when in-person distribution might be possible.

Gunnell and other AFT leaders and activists are worried the health crisis may hamper efforts to get an accurate count, especially among members of hard-to-count populations.

“Making sure that everyone is counted has always been a challenge,” says Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “We were already concerned about historically hard-to-count populations, like immigrants and young children, as well as rural communities where the lack of internet connection could pose a problem” with completing the census online. Social distancing, though necessary for our health, will make it even harder to reach people.

“There are huge sums of money at stake for Ohio’s children and schools through programs like Title I and school lunch and breakfast programs,” Cropper says. In 2016, Ohio received $577.5 million in Title I grants from the U.S. Department of Education to provide education services to children from low-income families. The state also received $484.4 million for the school breakfast and lunch programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and $3.5 billion in federal direct student loans in 2016. All of that funding was based on data from the last census, Cropper says.

The AFT prepared data sheets for each state listing funding totals from a sampling of programs that shows the impact of federal spending on states and local communities (data derived from the 2010 census).

The 2020 census marks the first time in the 230-year history of the national count that the U.S. Census Bureau is offering the option to respond to the census online. Until this year, the census was conducted primarily via mailed paper questionnaires that were sent to every home. And when people didn’t respond to the mailed census forms, canvassers were hired to go door to door armed with clipboards to complete the count. This year, canvassing has been suspended due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus. But, unlike in years past when everything happened in the spring, this year, households have until Oct. 31 to respond. The hope is that door-to-door canvassing will be able to resume sometime this summer and continue into the fall.

“If we can’t go door to door, that may take the number of people getting counted down,” says Cropper, who serves on her state’s Complete Count Commission. “We had plans to reach families by sending home information with students in their backpacks and by holding census nights where families could use our computer labs to complete the online census.

“With schools being closed now, we are instead encouraging teachers to reach families by posting messages on their online learning platforms or sending census information home in learning packets,” Cropper says. Affiliates around Ohio also are using the meal service sites set up by local school districts to distribute the We Count! books to students and families.

AFT’s state affiliate in New York, the nation’s fourth most populous state, is actively engaging with members to promote a complete census count.

“We’re trying to get the word out about getting folks counted so we can retain our congressional representation and retain or grow funding for critical programs,” says James Morrison, New York State United Teachers’ digital communications manager. “We also are trying to remind our membership that the census isn’t only about congressional representation, but about real, tangible resources that filter down to the local level.”

Like other organizations, NYSUT is using online communications and social media to encourage people to complete the census. It has launched a digital campaign aimed at informing and mobilizing NYSUT members around the state. NYSUT’S census 2020 website has basic information about the census and a breakdown of how the count affects programs and services around the state. According to the site, 76 percent of New York households completed the 2010 census, which led to a federal allocation of $73.3 billion. If the response rate had been 85 percent, the allocation would have increased to $82.4 billion, according to projections on the website.

“We’re really doubling down on our primary message around the importance of funding at the federal, state and local levels, and how we could face funding cuts without an accurate count,” Morrison says. The NYSUT census page also has a pledge card that nearly 1,330 members statewide have signed promising to complete the census and encourage others to do the same.

Getting an accurate census count in the times of COVID-19, Morrison and other affiliate leaders and activists say, will take creative planning to activate under-reached and underserved populations.

“I was already nervous about this census, even before COVID-19, because of all of the politicization around the count. I have never seen the census politicized the way it has been under the current administration,” Gunnell says, referring to Donald Trump’s unsuccessful push to include a citizenship question on the census. The administration gave up on the issue after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the question from being added.

Gunnell still worries some California residents may be gun-shy about completing the census.

“In California, we’re a state of immigrants. Now that we’re not free to go knocking on doors, I don’t know how we get the message out there that filling out the census is important and that there are numerous benefits to completing it,” Gunnell says.

According to data from the 2010 census, 74 percent of households, nationally, returned census forms by mail; the remaining households (approximately 47 million) were visited in person by census takers.

Gunnell says, “Without an accurate count, the cuts to education in our state would be devastating.”

What’s more, even with an accurate count, California is likely to lose a congressional seat for the first time in the state’s history. Since the 1950 census, California is one of three Sun Belt states—along with Florida and Texas—that has gained the most new members. After the 2010 census, California’s 53-seat congressional delegation did not increase, and new projections indicate it might lose a seat for the first time after the current census. Gunnell says an accurate census count will determine whether the state loses one seat or multiple seats.

Another concern about how the current health crisis might affect the census count, Gunnell and others say, is the devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the economy and people’s everyday lives.

“Since COVID-19, our unemployment rate has skyrocketed,” Gunnell says, “so people aren’t necessarily focused on the census.”

“The coronavirus crisis has really highlighted how much our students depend on our schools for more than just education needs—like their meals, healthcare and so many other things,” says Sarah Elwell, professional development coordinator for the Washington Teachers’ Union. “But when your focus is on survival, the census might be the last thing on your mind.”

However, Elwell is quick to point out that the resources state and local governments rely on to provide support services to disadvantaged populations are influenced by the census: “In that way, completing the census is absolutely connected to survival.”

Elwell also is concerned about the impact that rapid gentrification has had in Washington, D.C., where lower-income residents are being pushed out of neighborhoods at some of the highest rates in the country.

“Even though our city is changing, some D.C. public schools still have large populations of students who are economically disadvantaged,” Elwell says. Since schools closed due to the coronavirus, Elwell says she and WTU members who volunteered handed out the We Count! census books at meal distribution sites at elementary schools in neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8, which are known to have some of the largest concentrations of the city’s lower-income residents.

“Gentrification has been devastating to families who have been priced out of housing in their neighborhoods, and it has contributed to growing homelessness,” Elwell says. “We have a number of homeless students who live in shelters, and I’m concerned about how we count them.” Many of the students who live in shelters also have been largely unreachable since the schools closed.

Elwell continues, “I’m also worried about our immigrant students who are undocumented, because they often are hesitant to be visible.”

In New York, Morrison says that part of the work NYSUT is doing is to educate people about the census to try to assure them that the process is safe, because census data is protected by federal law.

“We try to emphasize that the citizenship question is not included on the census questionnaire,” Morrison says, “and that there’s a higher correlation with census turnout helping, rather than hurting, underserved communities.”

A number of the AFT’s community partners—including the NAACP and NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials)—are working to address the concerns of immigrant communities and to overcome the barriers that might keep them from being counted.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law launched a Census Protection Hotline (888-COUNT20) that is live from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT. Through a partnership with the Arab American Institute (833-3DDOUNI), Asian Americans Advancing Justice (844-2020-API), and the NALEO Educational Fund (877-EL-CENSO)—the Lawyers’ Committee has launched census hotlines for the communities they serve. The hotlines will operate in more than 10 languages and serve as a crucial resource for individuals who have questions about the 2020 census. The Lawyers’ Committee also created a Census Protection Hotline Partner Toolkit with information on how to use the hotlines.

Additional census resources are available through AFT’s Share My Lesson Census page and AFT’s Census page.

[Angela Callahan]