Part of the census is already on hold

Part of the census is already on hold

Today’s census news ties into the story that we were discussing yesterday. The decennial count is already being impacted by the threat of the coronavirus in ways that are proving challenging to overcome. In addition to having difficulty finding enough temporary workers in some regions, there are specific jobs that have been deemed too risky to perform during this era of social distancing even when they have the staff to tackle them. Chief among those are the assignments to go to college campuses, grocery stores and even churches. (Boston Herald)

Because of the new coronavirus, the U.S. Census Bureau has postponed sending out census takers to count college students in off-campus housing and delayed sending workers to grocery stores and houses of worship where they help people fill out the once-a-decade questionnaire.

The Census Bureau said in a statement Sunday that the deadline for ending the 2020 census at the end of July could be adjusted as needed. The 2020 census started last week with its website going live and the start of mailings notifying people to start answering the questionnaire.

As of Sunday, 5 million people had already responded to the census, according to the bureau.

Students living in off-campus, temporary housing won’t always show up as having a fixed residence in those locations and would likely not be in the system to be counted. Going door to door is nearly the only way to ensure that you find them all. Similarly, churches and food pantries are likely places to be able to catch up with the indigent and get them counted as well. Given the current rules regarding mixing in large groups, the Census Bureau clearly doesn’t want to take the risk of sending temporary workers who probably don’t have the best health insurance to begin with on assignments like these.

The other factor not mentioned here is that many colleges have simply closed at this point, sending the students home to do their coursework and participate in lectures online. Some students have apartments in the area and will be able to remain there. Others are going back home to live with their parents. In other words, the student population is splintering and scattering to the wind. Counting them all just became incrementally harder.

So what does that mean? The deadline for completing the initial round of counting was supposed to be the end of July, but with estimates of when the coronavirus will have run its course varying wildly, that simply may not be possible. The Bureau is leaving itself the flexibility to push the date back later in the year.

Fortunately, the census only happens once every ten years and pandemics remain thankfully rare. But this should still serve as a red flag indicating that changes to the system are required in case something like happens again ten years from now. I hesitate to suggest that even more of the census process be moved online and be made accessible through all mobile devices because of the danger of hackers infiltrating the system. But at this point, so much of it is already in the cloud that I’m not sure it matters. We received our letter from the Census Bureau on the day after they began going out. There wasn’t even a paper form inside. It just told us to go to a particular website, enter the code provided and fill it out there. By 2030, if everyone doesn’t already have a mobile device implanted behind their eyes, perhaps the enumerators will need to go out on the streets and hand out disposable mobile devices so the process can be completed.

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