Head count: New technology presents challenges for 2020 Census

A graphic showing how households will receive census invitations. 95% of households will receive their invitations in the mail, almost 5% will receive an invitation in-person from a census taker, and less than 1% will simply be counted in-person by a census taker.
(U.S. Census Bureau image)

SALEM, Ohio — With the 2020 Census set to offer an online response option, Ohioans in areas with limited broadband access may need to be more proactive with how they respond.

“We don’t want populations in rural areas to slip through the cracks just because they don’t have access,” said Jenna Beadle, director of state policy for Ohio Farm Bureau.

2020 will be the first time the census has included an online option. That comes with challenges. Howard Fienberg, co-director of The Census Project, said some of the biggest challenges for 2020 are the uncertainties.

Every home should receive an invitation to fill out the census survey by April 1, the U.S. Census Bureau says. People will be able to respond online, by phone and by mail. The bureau will send out several mailings, and the fourth one will include a paper questionnaire. Households in areas with low internet access or usage should receive paper questionnaires earlier in the process.

Fienberg said it is hard to predict how many households will self-respond to these invitations, and how many will struggle to self-respond online because of limited internet access.

In May 2020, census takers will begin following up in-person with households that have not responded. Instead of using paper, these census takers will use mobile devices and take down responses in a secure mobile application on the devices. After the census taker submits a response, it is encrypted and transmitted to the bureau’s private network, then removed from the device.


Fienberg said the door-to-door follow-up is time-consuming and expensive, though.

The 2020 Census has already faced funding challenges. Fienberg said the Census Bureau had to cancel 2017 tests for tribal lands and rural and remote areas in Washington State, North and South Dakota and Puerto Rico. It also cancelled the 2018 end-to-end readiness test in rural West Virginia. Both of these cancellations were for funding reasons.

“We just don’t know how well it will work until the counting gets going,” Fienberg said. “This includes to what extent census takers’ mobile devices will operate with minimal to no cellular service.”

The Government Accountability Office said the 2020 Census is estimated to cost about $15.6 billion. The office noted that it will be challenging for the bureau to control the costs and get an accurate count, while implementing new technology.


Beadle said Ohio Farm Bureau is educating members on why the census is important.

“Our concern is that with the lack of broadband in our rural areas, it’s going to be difficult,” she said. Areas in Ohio that struggle with access include northwest Ohio, as well as Appalachia, especially in the southeast part of the state.

“We really just want to make sure that we are educating our members on why it is so important to be counted in the census,” Beadle said. Census counts affect the way districts are drawn and funds are allocated to road and bridge infrastructure and education, among other things.

Beadle added that it is important for H-2A workers to be counted as well, since they also use local resources.

“We need to know who is drawing on those resources,” she said.

Completing the census survey is also required by law. Beadle noted the bureau does not share census information with law enforcement, or with immigration and customs enforcement. The bureau is required to protect personal information and keep it confidential.


In some areas, Complete Count Committees, which are volunteer groups organized by tribal, state and local governments and other organizations, form to share information about the census and encourage citizens to fill it out.

Beadle encouraged farm bureau members to get involved with these committees, or to reach out to one for more information or help getting forms. A map of Complete Count Committees in the U.S. is available at www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/2020-complete-count-committees.html.


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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.



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