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Follow the Data Podcast: Census Series – The Who, What, When, Where, Why

Courtesy of Shutterstock
Courtesy of Shutterstock

In order to be managed, data needs to be collected. One of the largest data collection efforts in the United States is fast approaching; cities and states are gearing up for the 2020 census.

Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consultancy that works with cities across the world, is advising Detroit and Atlanta to prepare for the decennial survey.

Jaime Lavin of Bloomberg Associates municipal integrity team spoke to our podcast host, Katherine Oliver, about the history of the census, how to prepare, and potential challenges in the 2020 count. This episode is part one of a series on the census, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data to hear more.

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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

Our show is based on the underlying principle and well-known saying by our founder Mike Bloomberg that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is especially true for the subject of a new series we’re airing on the U.S. Census.

The U.S. has counted its population every 10 years since 1790. The next census survey will take place in 2020 and it’s more important than ever that we count everyone. The census shapes many different aspects of our communities and the results help determine how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and local governments. It’s so important it’s even mandated by the Constitution.

In this episode, we speak to Jaime Lavin from the Bloomberg Associates Municipal Integrity Team, to explore the history of the census, the definition of a “census,” and why it is so important.

For more on the census, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data.

Listen now.

OLIVER: Jaime, thanks for joining us.

JAIME LAVIN:  Thank you for having me.

OLIVER: So first of all, what is a census, or the census?

LAVIN:  The census is a decennial count of the people in the United States.  It’s the largest peacetime mobilization, and it requires years of research, planning, operational support, technology investments to conduct the census.  The United States has had a census every ten years since 1790, so really, since the country was started.

OLIVER:  Incredible, and what’s the format of the census?

LAVIN:  So, the census form is a piece of paper, and it has been used for hundreds of years. The questions have changed over the years. They’ve changed in part because of our history in the United States.  So, the census questions used to, for instance, ask you how many slaves you had in your households, because slaves were portioned at 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of representation in Congress, and now, of course, it’s all people, and so the questions have changed over time, the questions include things like, how many people are in your household, what are the age of those people–

OLIVER:  Relationship with the members of the household.

LAVIN:  Exactly, because what they really want is one person in the household to fill it out on behalf of all of the people in the household, related or not.

OLIVER:  We should note that every household is required to complete the census.

LAVIN:  They are required, and actually, there’s a $100 penalty for not completing the census.  Now, that’s not traditionally enforced, but every household is required to complete it.  What people don’t realize, though, is that some people choose not to answer every question, and as long as they can consider it a relatively complete form, so that for statistical purposes, they don’t just have one question on the form completed and the rest of it is blank, the Census Bureau will still count the census form even if every question has not been completed.

OLIVER:  So, why do we have a census?

LAVIN:  We have it for a few reasons.  The first reason is really about representation.  It’s representation in Congress.  The House of Representatives, how many representatives each state gets is determined by the census.  We also have it for representation in terms of figuring out the numbers of electors in the Electoral College that each state gets, so choosing our president.  We have it for the states and localities to decide how to district their state, and so you have minority-majority districts because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, where you have to make sure that you’re not creating districts where minorities are purposely being disenfranchised.

We also have it for two other reasons.  One is to decide how funding is going to be apportioned, so federal funding decisions are made based on the census, and that’s roads, that’s schools, that’s medical funding, infrastructure. And then businesses rely on census data.  They rely on it to decide: where am I going to make my investments; how am I going to market within that state; where do I want to move and locate my headquarters or my distribution centers?

OLIVER:  Give us a bit more of the history. As you said, the first census was carried out in 1790.  How many people were counted way back then, how did they go about doing it, and there’s a boldfaced name census director that we should acknowledge.

LAVIN:  Absolutely. The Constitution required that the census happen within three years of the first meeting of Congress, and then happen every ten years from then on, and so the first census was held in 1790.  The first census director was actually Thomas Jefferson, because it was a function partially of the State Department at that time, and of course, he was our Secretary of State. And the first census counted 3.9 million people.

The cost of that census [was] $44,000, and there were 650 enumerators, and at that time, the enumerators were U.S. Marshals or their assistants.  The largest urban area was New York City, and it had 33,000 people. And the census, at that time, had six questions.

So, the last census, which was carried out in 2010, counted over 308 million people in the United States. It was $12.9 billion to carry out the census in 2010, and they had 635,000 people who acted as enumerators going door to door, knocking on people’s doors and telling people, you need to fill out this form. Now, remember, you only get a door knock if you don’t fill it out the first time. So if anyone wants to avoid having someone show up at their door, there’s an easy way to do that – fill it out when you get it in the mail, or for this census, when it goes online.

OLIVER:  And New York remained the largest urban area in the country, I presume.

LAVIN:  It did.  At this point, its population had ballooned to over 8.1 million people.

OLIVER:  Now, talk a little bit about how cities in the US prepare for this.  It seems to be a monumental task.

LAVIN:  It is, and cities, some of them are building on what they’ve been doing for years, so New York City, for instance, has had the same census director, or I should really say, he’s a demography expert, at the Department of City Planning, and he has been there for the last four censuses, so he has a lot of institutional knowledge.  So some cities, like New York City, are building upon what they’ve done in the past, and then maybe taking that to the next level.  Other cities haven’t had a big census operation before, and so they’re putting together plans that have outreach components, communication components, and then working with the regional offices.

There are six regions in the United States, and six regional offices, and each one of those has a regional director, and then they have partnership staff, and the partnership staff are really the people who are supposed to be working with the cities, the nonprofits, the community groups, to help them spread the word, raise awareness, and develop operational plans around the census.

OLIVER:  Sounds really challenging and time consuming.  How is Bloomberg Associates involved in helping shape this and advise on the strategy?

LAVIN:  We became involved at Bloomberg Associates when Mayor Duggan reached out to us.  We’ve been doing a lot of work in Detroit, and he said, I need to knock it out of the park on the census.  Can Bloomberg Associates help me?  So we said, yes, of course, Mr. Mayor, we’d love to help you, and we planned a workshop and helped the city develop a strategy that it has been executing on since then. And one of the things we wanted to do was involve our other Bloomberg Associates cities in that, and so we invited Houston and we invited Atlanta to join us at the workshop, and to both offer, what are they doing in their cities, and to learn from what these experts could share, and the stakeholders.

OLIVER:  And what are the priorities at this stage?  Is it raising money, is it coming up with a marketing and communications plan, just reminding people why they need to do this?

LAVIN:  So, there are a few priorities.  The first is to develop that relationship with the Regional Census Office, because cities really need to make sure that they have a funnel, and they have a channel to have input on what’s going to happen in their area.  They want to have a voice in who is going to be the area director, who is going to be doing outreach and on the ground in their community, who are going to be the enumerators.

They have to make sure that people who know their communities are going to be the ones knocking on doors, because what you really want is a familiar face, somebody who knows that neighborhood, so having that pipeline into the census bureau is really important.

The second thing they’re doing are forming complete count committees.  Those are made up of stakeholders from the area, influential people who can help drive awareness and outreach and communications.

They’re raising money, in some places, cities themselves are giving money, and in some places, they’re looking for money from philanthropy, they’re looking for money from the states. New York State has invested over $20 million in census outreach.  California is investing at least $100 million in census outreach, and so cities need to make sure that they’re tapping [into] that money, and that the groups in their cities are tapping [into] that money to be able to support their efforts.

OLIVER:  This is quite the endeavor.  There are a number of challenges.  We’ve discussed some of them. The citizenship question is a big one. Very timely, but a bit controversial, so can you give us some background on that, and how you think that’s going to influence or play a part this time around?

LAVIN:  Absolutely, so in March 2018, the Commerce Department announced that it was going to add a question to the census form, asking people whether they are citizens, and even asking them if they are citizens, if it was through naturalization. And this has, in this political climate, really created a maelstrom of concern about how it will impact people’s decision whether or not to fill out the form.

There are a lot of people in this country who are concerned that sharing that type of information may not just share it with the Census Bureau, but may share it with enforcement authorities, and whether or not that could make them a target for removal proceedings. And so one of the things that’s happening now is a legal challenge to the question, challenging whether or not it’s lawful, challenging whether or not it’s constitutional. And then there’s also going to be a lot of marketing that’s going to need to be done by those who want the census form to be filled out, and explaining to people why this question is not a concern, and that’s going to be assuring them that the information is confidential, that it cannot legally be shared beyond the Census Bureau, it cannot be shared with ICE, it cannot be shared with state authorities

You really need to lay the groundwork and make sure that by the time the census form comes out and people get it, get their code in the mail and are being asked to fill it out online,  that they’ve heard a lot about the census, and they understand the importance to their community, and that’s really what this is about, because when you ask people about the census, they sort of say, well, you know, it doesn’t affect me, why am I going to fill it out?  And it’s having to personalize the effect, to say to them, well, does your kid participate in Headstart?  Well, we won’t have funding for Headstart unless you fill out this form.  Do you like being able to drive on roads without potholes?  Well, we don’t have any money for our Department of Transportation, and we won’t unless you fill out this form, and so it’s really hyper-localizing the effect.

OLIVER:  So, now, our work at Bloomberg Associates also entails advising cities on how they’re using technology, so how is the use of technology helping to facilitate the process with the census?

LAVIN:  Absolutely, so I mentioned before that this census is going to be different.  So, this is the first census that’s going to be online, so instead of receiving a paper form in the mail, most households are going to get a little card that gives them a code and a website, and they’re expected to go on the website, enter their code, and fill out the census form online we’re making sure that cities, and that organizations have access to additional technology to support making it easier for people to go online, whether that’s having libraries and questionnaire assistance centers that have tablets for people to fill these out, or in Detroit, they’re going to send people door to door with tablets to fill these out, in addition to the enumerators who are going to be going out.

It’s also going to be leveraging social media.  Social media wasn’t as big of a deal in 2010 as it is now, our cities are going to be focusing more on local media and digital media and leaving the expensive national media to the Census Bureau, which is going to be running its own ads, but tailoring messaging.  Houston, for instance, is conducting its own messaging research.  They didn’t think in 2010, they quite got it right on the messaging to their hard to count communities, and so they’re funding field research and focus groups to be done in their communities to be able to micro-target them.

OLIVER:  And what are you hearing from the folks that you’re advising in Detroit, for example?  Are people receptive to this and engaged in providing the information?

LAVIN:  We were part of planning, and we attended a rally that was held on April 1st, 2019.  There was a rally in both Detroit and Atlanta that we participated and helped with, and it was a jam-packed crowd, and people were really enthusiastic, I think, that you have and especially some of these urban communities, people who are saying, you’re not going to count me out. I’m going to be counted, and I’m going to make sure my neighbors get counted, and I’m going to do my part, and that’s really what the cities are depending on.  They’re depending on the neighbors, the block associations, the community groups, helping them spread the message and making sure that people understand why it’s so important, and why their particular community is going to benefit by everyone filling out the census form.

OLIVER:  So what’s the timeline for all of this, and when will we get the data once all of this information is collected?

LAVIN:  The data is going to be collected from March through June, and really into July of 2020.  That’s when the census forms will be distributed, collected electronically, that’s when the door knocking happens, and then the Census Bureau really has to take that back and run with it and compile all that data, and so they’re required to transmit the state population totals and congressional apportionment to the President by December 31st, 2020, so by the end of the year, and then they need to give other data about the demographics, and all the information they collected to the States by March 31st, 2021, and that’s when it will start to filter out to citizens, to businesses, and it will start getting cross-tabulated with the demographic information as well.

OLIVER:  Very important heading into the 2020 elections.

LAVIN: That’s the crazy part of all this, too, is that this is going to be happening at the exact same time as primary voting, and so people are going to be inundated with both census information coming out and primary election campaigning happening.  It’s also going to be harder to recruit the field staff that you might want to send out, the volunteers, because they may be working on political campaigns, and so the fact that these two national events are going to coincide is another challenge that the census staff is going to have to work out, because everyone is really committed to getting an accurate and complete count, and how you do that is by getting people to fill out the form in the early stages.

You don’t want to have to wait for people to go door to door, because it tends that the information becomes less reliable, as you start going door to door and you start relying on administrative records, because that’s what they do when people just refuse to answer, they start thinking, okay, well, how else can we get at this data, and it might be—let’s look at registrations and things like that, and it tends to not be as complete.

OLIVER:  So Jaime, I think we’ll leave it there.  Thank you for this enlightening conversation, and make sure to tune in for part two of our conversation on the US census.

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Be sure to check back in two weeks when we air the next episode in our census series.

Thanks to Jaime Lavin for joining us today.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Emily Mayrath, Ivy Li and Jaime Lavin — music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Eric Sheppard.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.