America was never really ready for the census. Just as the government failed to respond to changing circumstances with COVID-19, it did so, too, with the census. COVID-19 turned a smoldering census crisis into a full-blown catastrophe. The U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to suspend all field operations compounded the long-term institutional failures at every level of government. The institutions we rely on during this crisis rely on census data to inform their decision-making. Now that we’ve essentially shuttered the census without any sense of how to restart it, U.S. institutions hang in the balance.
Amid one of the most challenging census environments in U.S. history, the work of hundreds of thousands of the Census Bureau’s partners — primarily local and state governments, and nonprofits — was upended as their priorities and resources shifted to fighting COVID-19. We can expect another global pandemic by 2030, meaning the accuracy of this census has become that much more important for America’s health institutions in combatting future crises.
Over the years, the federal government’s support for census preparation has dwindled. Since 2012, the Census Bureau has been underfunded by more than $200 billion, despite the increasing average cost to count each household. The states and cities that are most prepared for the census get the largest share of federal support, $1.5 trillion this year alone. The enumeration cost per household in 1970 was $16. This year it’s estimated to be $107. And at what was considered the homestretch of census operations, 23,610 temporary field workers were suspended in March 2020. The decision came at a time when hiring was significantly behind schedule compared to the same time in 2010. Public spaces that were shut down through mid-April, such as libraries and schools, could not serve as “counting-centers.”
Historically, rural areas relied on in-person enumeration for a variety of reasons: poverty, single-detached homes, post-office boxes, and a lack of broadband access for up to 42 million people. Similarly in urban cores, distrust of government, language barriers, and unconventional housing units are characteristics that make traditional mail and digital enumeration difficult.
America’s medical systems and health institutions rely upon on census data to combat the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across America. Essential industries, even toilet paper suppliers, use census data to help estimate demand for their products. As the cash flows of small businesses dry up, the Small Business Administration is relying on census data to administer the relief efforts Congress approved in April. During this critical time, and long after its passing, America’s great public and private sectors will need reliable census data to meet the demands of this crisis and begin to rebuild our damaged economy.
The irony is that the very program politicians have undermined for nearly a decade is the program our most-trusted health institutions depend on to combat COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics. The census isn’t sexy policy work. But it’s vital, especially for the almost two million people diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States. Once the pandemic has passed and the census is complete, the most important questions that have not been asked, will need to be asked. As we await the results of this year’s count, expect states that have done their homework to reap the benefits, while others brace for a painful awakening.
Jordan Duecker works at a nonprofit in Manhattan. He is a former aide in the Missouri Governor’s Office, where he led census operations, criminal justice reform, and unmanned aerial systems policy for Govs. Eric Greitens and Mike Parson.
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