How do you count Americans for 2020 Census when they’re social distancing during coronavirus?

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Buttons and stickers at an event for the 2020 Census and the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. Photo credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Wikimedia Commons.

Every 10 years, the federal government spends three months counting everyone living in America, and uses the data to calculate political representation and allocate federal money.

This time, there’s a new wrinkle: How do you conduct the Census when everybody is socially distancing?

It’s a problem that Tim Olson, Associate Director for Field Operations for the U.S. Census Bureau, is strategizing to answer. He’s hopeful COVID-19 won’t prevent an accurate count. 

We're working with well over 300,000 organizations, from churches to mosques to schools to neighborhood associations, to cities to tribes, to counties to states. And I believe we're going to get there.” 

Current data shows at least 32% of Californians have responded, and a majority of those responses have been submitted online, an option available for the first time this year. 

What’s also new in 2020: The U.S. Census Bureau pushed the deadline for self-reporting from July to August. 

But most significantly, door-to-door enumerators will start two weeks later than planned, on April 15. Olson says the additional time is for training workers on how to do their jobs, while being mindful of social distancing. 

These strategies may work for some communities, but possibly not for the ones that the Census deems  “hard-to-count.” That includes renters, older residents, and those with limited English proficiency. 

“I can't believe there is this additional challenge … that has come at this time in a way that is so beyond us, and having to pivot yet again as to how do we get our communities counted,” says June Lim, Demographic Research Project Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles

Lim’s organization helps count Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders. She says they were already concerned about lower participation for immigrants.

The Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the Census has already made some people uncomfortable, although the Supreme Court blocked the question.  

Organizers are also concerned about reaching people who are sheltering in place. They aren’t confident many of those people will be able to navigate the online form on their own. 

Tavae Samuelu, executive director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, says organizations will have to rely more on younger generations to help people with online reporting.

“Even if our elders speak English, they don't speak internet. I'm still trying to get my mom to understand how to use the internet,” says Samuelu.

But self-isolating people may not have someone else to help them, says Susan Henderson, who runs the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. In that case, they need phone banks.

“[Homecare workers and other assistance staff] are going to be going through their client list, calling people and texting people, and encouraging them to remember to take the Census online if they can, and if they don't have broadband or a device where they can fill out the form online,” says Henderson.

For more information, visit the Census Bureau’s website.