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2020 Census Shifts Focus Online As Coronavirus Keeps Organizers Home

The effort to get people to respond to the census is having to adapt as coronavirus preventative measures are put in place.

In cities and states throughout the country, census takers have been preparing to ramp up their efforts this month. Already, the 2020 census has been plagued by misinformation. That, coupled with a divisive political climate, has made many Americans suspicious of participating.

Cities around the country, including Milwaukee, had planned big, community-focused events to raise confidence in the census. But now as the nation grapples with the novel coronavirus, most of those events have been cancelled and suspicions remain in some communities most at-risk of being undercounted.


Katya Spear is the co-managing director for the Mayor’s Innovation Project, a national peer-learning network for U.S. Mayors and senior staff. She put these efforts and their impact into perspective.

“[The census] impacts federal funding distributions for things like, public safety, health and education, transportation,” says Spear. “It’s also used in all kinds of data analysis and research that’s done by organizations and groups around the country.”

Spear says populations like immigrants, minorities, and especially the elderly and children are the most undercounted. A general lack of trust in the government at this time and the Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question have added to more confusion around the census.

Something that was added to the census this year was online reporting. This option could be the most effective tool census takers have with the cancellation of all large, in-person events. Spear says the three major ways people will now respond to the census are by mail, phone, or online.

If you want to learn more about census efforts in your area, Spear suggests heading to Census Counts.  

Credit U.S. Census Bureau
A simulated census, non response, follow-up interview in Providence, R.I., February 2018.
Lake Effect's Joy Powers is joined by Dr. Margo Anderson, a distinguished professor emerita at UW-Milwaukee and an expert on the census, to talk about the history of the census and how major disruptions have been handled in the past.

Although the U.S. has faced pandemics in the past, the spread of the novel coronavirus comes at a very delicate time for the census. 

As the coronavirus spreads to more Americans, going door-to-door has become much more dangerous. And, as Spear mentioned, an undercount could have huge impacts on the kind of funding necessary to respond to crises like the one currently facing the nation.

Dr. Margo Anderson is a distinguished professor emerita at UW-Milwaukee and an expert on the census. She says the US has never had a national pandemic during a census count before.

"[It's] actually threatened by the pandemic, namely what they call the 'in-person enumeration' or non-reponse follow up," says Anderson. "Now we have the internet, a few years ago the worry was that we wouldn't have the bandwidth. We'll see if that holds, if it does it will ease some of the other issues."

You can respond to the 2020 census onlinenow.