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Census Bureau plans for 2020 count, with more online responses

The U.S. Census Bureau, preparing for widespread use of Internet responses in the 2020 Census, announced plans Monday for a national test next year that will experiment with the design of survey questions on race, ethnicity and household relationships.

Agency officials said they anticipate the next decennial survey will allow Internet response on a broad scale for the first time.

"We will have the paper option available, but we will encourage the public to use the Internet," said Jennifer Reichert, program manager of the bureau's 2020 Census Optimizing Self-Response.

Local activists, however, expressed worry about the bureau's plans for Internet responses, fearing that some populations -- such as the poor, immigrants and some minorities -- would have less online access. They said those populations already are vulnerable to being overlooked in the count.

The "National Content and Self-Response Test" is slated to get underway Sept. 1, 2015, bureau officials announced.

The test -- planned as a large representative sample of the nation's population that would reach into every state and Puerto Rico -- is to focus on designing questions to better capture residents' race and ethnicity, relationships and the number of people living within households.

Census officials spoke of the need to gather data on same-sex married couples. After the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 ruling against a federal ban on same-sex marriage, the agency is considering whether to include categories for same-sex husband/wife and same-sex unmarried partner. The 2010 Census asked only about an unmarried partner.

The bureau also plans to test combining questions on race and Hispanic origin, and to explore adding a "Middle Eastern or North African" category, as some advocacy groups have sought.

Smaller-scale tests are scheduled in April in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the Savannah, Georgia, metropolitan area, the agency said.

The proposed tests come as the bureau seeks a more cost-efficient way to conduct the constitutionally mandated decennial count of the nation's population. The 2010 Census cost $13 billion, officials have said.

Since the beginning of 2013, the bureau has allowed Internet response to its American Community Survey, which queries 3.5 million people annually. That was the first widespread use of the Internet for census surveys.

Darren Sandow, executive director of the Hagedorn Foundation, based in Roslyn Harbor, which helped finance 2010 Census outreach by Long Island nonprofits, expressed reservations about the plan for online responses. "I don't want Internet access to be used as an excuse to do further cuts," he said, referring to Census Bureau funding. "There's nothing like people-to-people contact."

Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, a national organization of stakeholder groups ranging from labor unions and civil rights groups to local and state governments, pointed to congressional inaction in giving the bureau the money it needs next year to conduct tests to get ready for the 2020 census.

"The largest concern we have overall is the Congress hasn't appropriated money for these tests to be initiated at the April start date," Sparks said. "These tests could potentially save the American taxpayer $5 billion in 2020, to have a more efficient test. But the census budget is caught up in the crossfire of this congressional gridlock."

Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which was involved in 2010 Census outreach, said development of new response strategies is a positive direction.

But nothing replaces census-takers going door to door to follow up with people who don't return a census form as "the only way to get the best count possible," Tyson said.

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