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Follow the Data Podcast: Census Series — The Bureau

Census Hard to Count Map from
Census Hard to Count Map from

Follow the Data’s Census Series has covered the “Who, What, When, Where, Why” and featured a case study on how one city, Detroit, Michigan, is preparing for the 2020 census.

In the final episode of the series we learn more about the federal agency that manages the decennial census, among other things. Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director for the House of Representatives Census Oversight Subcommittee, speaks to Bloomberg Associates’ Municipal Integrity Principal, Rose Gill Hearn, about how the Census Bureau has evolved to prepare for the first “digital count,” about the agency’s commitment to confidentiality and the efforts made to achieve full census participation.

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

In the final episode of our series on the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census, we discuss preparation on the national level, from the perspective of the federal agency in charge of the count – the Census Bureau.

Bloomberg Associates’ Municipal Integrity Principal Rose Gill Hearn spoke to Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director for the House of Representatives Census Oversight Subcommittee. Now, Terri Ann consults with philanthropies and local governments on census issues – And recently, she’s been working with Bloomberg Associates and the city of Detroit to prepare the city for its census.

Their conversation outlines the Census Bureau mandate, how it is preparing for it’s first “digital” count, and how the bureau is fighting the potential threat of inaccurate information discouraging full census participation.

Listen now.

ROSE GILL HEARN:  Good morning, and thank you, Terri Ann Lowenthal, for being here. Wonderful to have your expertise on issues pertaining to census.

LOWENTHAL:  Thank you for the opportunity.  It’s very timely.

HEARN:  Terri Ann, where does the U.S. Census Bureau fit in the federal system, and how does it prepare for the decennial count coming up in 2020?

LOWENTHAL:  Unlike many countries, the United States has a very decentralized federal statistical system.  There are 13 primary statistical agencies that gather information and make it available to the public, and many more smaller statistical agencies all spread out throughout the federal government.  The Census Bureau is the largest and the most well-known of the federal statistical agencies. In addition to the decennial census, which takes place once every 10 years, it conducts many ongoing surveys and other data collection activities that informs the allocation of resources and development of policies and helps the public hold government accountable.

Now, it does take a full 10 years to prepare for a decennial census.  It is the nation’s largest, most complex peacetime activity.  It affects every household, every person living in the United States.

HEARN:  Why is it such a huge challenge to get 100% census participation, and what are some of the biggest barriers to participation?

LOWENTHAL:  I think the first challenge for the Census Bureau is that the census takes place only once every 10 years, most people just don’t think about the census until the census year rolls around. The Census Bureau has a massive challenge to educate and increase awareness about the census in every community with every household in the country. For the 2020 Census, we are seeing a number of unprecedented challenges that could put the success of this census at risk.  It is the first census that will rely substantially on automation, the first census to have an online option for responding. This census will take place during the height of a presidential campaign, and so there will be a lot of noise in the public communications arena, and it will be difficult for the Census Bureau to be. Finally, I think more than in the past, many people distrust government.  They may not have confidence that the information they provide will be kept confidential.  They may be worried that it will be used to harm them and their families.  But they also may just be worried about cybersecurity and the potential for hacks now that this technology is being brought to bear on the collection, tabulation, and publication of the results.

HEARN:  Of course, privacy is, as you just mentioned, has been in the front of people’s minds around the world because of all these high-profile hacks and breaches.  Do you respondents have any reason to be concerned, specifically about the confidentiality of their personal information?

LOWENTHAL:  The Census Bureau has never violated the confidentiality of personal census information. The Census Bureau is covered by the strictest confidentiality protections on the federal books. A person’s or a household’s personal information may not be shared with any other government agency, including law enforcement agencies. There are very strict penalties for anyone working for the Census Bureau that might breach their confidentiality pledge, which they take for life.

If they violate that, they are subject to up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  In addition, no other federal agency, no court of law, may use your data should it, for some reason, become public to harm you or your family.  There are double layers of protection.  The data the Census Bureau collects can only be used to produce anonymous statistics.

Now, having said that, it’s understandable that there are some people who still do not believe that the government—and we may need to say this administration—will abide by the confidentiality statutes.  What I would say to people is that there are state attorneys general, city corporation councils or city attorneys, as well as national advocacy groups that do a lot of litigation that will be watching this census like hawks.  If there is any reason to believe that the government, especially the federal government, would try to breach the confidentiality laws they would step in right away to protect people.

HEARN:  Bottom line, census information is confidential by law, correct?

LOWENTHAL:  That’s exactly right.

HEARN:  Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the citizenship question, what should cities and other stakeholders be doing to ease confusion and fear and restore confidence in the safety and importance of census participation in their communities?

LOWENTHAL:  Regrettably, the Census Bureau is facing another challenge this time around that it didn’t anticipate. A couple of years ago, this administration proposed adding an untested and really unnecessary, question to the census form that would ask about citizenship.  The census has not asked about citizenship on the form that goes to all households since 1950, and even then the question was not asked of all residents in every household.  That decision was challenged in court almost immediately by many states and national advocates.  And this past June, the Supreme Court actually ruled that the Commerce Secretary did not follow procedures in trying to add that question to the form, and therefore, the census will not include a citizenship question.

Nevertheless, the controversy over that question and the fear it has caused in many immigrant communities, who already are skeptical of this administration’s position toward immigrants, has already created damage in terms of convincing people that it is safe and confidential to participate in the census.  The Census Bureau, again, is now facing another uphill battle to overcome that fear and confusion over the effort to add that question.  I think this is another area where city officials, where mayors and other trusted voices at the local level, will have to work very hard in partnership with the Census Bureau to ease fears in immigrant communities, remind people that there will not be a citizenship question, and that any other information they provide in answering the census is strictly confidential.

HEARN:  The Supreme Court case was a win for people who did not want the citizenship question on the form. Hopefully that win will galvanize more people to come and participate.  And the publicity about the ruling, I hope, will bring more people into participation.

LOWENTHAL:  I think you’re exactly right.  it’s important to remind people, the U.S. Constitution requires a count of all persons living in the United States.  It says nothing about citizenship or immigration status. We want to make sure that people understand that you should participate in the census and be counted regardless of your status here.

HEARN:  What is there to be gained from someone participating in the census?

LOWENTHAL:  The census makes sure that there is equal representation and that all persons have an equal voice, in our democratic system of governance.  That’s the first important reason.  But beyond that, the federal government allocates about a trillion dollars a year for very vital services and programs to states and localities, and individuals and families, based on census data.  resources for health care, improving transit and transportation systems, money for schools and recreation centers, services for older Americans and veterans.

And at the local level, cities use census data every day to make decisions on where to allocate resources, to understand the conditions in all of their neighborhoods, and to plan for the future.  An accurate census lifts all boats, and everyone benefits from having a good count.

HEARN:  We’ve heard some concern about misinformation or disinformation being spread, on social media about the census that could result in people not being counted.  Perhaps this is the case this time around, especially since some of these social media platforms did not exist for the prior censuses.  2020 is, as you have indicated, going to be the first online census.  Are there proactive steps to avoid this under-consideration by the Census Bureau, and what can cities do to help counter this threat to an inclusive census?

LOWENTHAL:  You’re exactly right.  Technology brings with it the possibility of the rapid spread of misinformation, which is inaccurate information, but also disinformation, which is intentional spreading of false information that could discourage many people from participating in the census, either because they think they shouldn’t be counted or because they’re afraid to be counted and afraid that the information they provide would be misused.  Now, the Census Bureau is very aware of this threat.  As we all know, this threat hangs over our election systems as well.

The Census Bureau has just launched a new campaign to do what it’s calling “Fight the Rumors,” and it has set up an email,, for people to report information that they think is inaccurate, whether intentional or not. In addition, this is another area where local governments and their community-based partners really should keep an eye out for disinformation that may be spreading on social media at the local level.  They should use their own municipal websites to try and counter that by putting out a lot of accurate information.  The best way to counter disinformation is to drown it out with a lot of accurate, clear, simple, good information.

HEARN:  Excellent.  Can you share some other examples of what cities are doing and unique approaches to preparing for the count?

LOWENTHAL:  Some of the activities we’ve seen include efforts to partner with businesses, retail and other, that will do outreach to their customers and their employees as the census gets closer to promote the importance of participating. Partnering with libraries is now a very popular, because libraries, are trusted, but also safe spaces in a community.  And many libraries have computer banks, and people who don’t have access to computers or need help understanding even what government does go to libraries for information.  I think cities should use all of their agencies that have direct contact with the population to convey messages. When cities are sending out tax bills, I hate to say it, but they should all have, include messages, “The census is coming.  Don’t forget to participate.”

HEARN: Water bills and electric bills, utility bills, can also have that kind of messaging as well.

LOWENTHAL:  Exactly.  Those are great ideas.  I think the final partnership, though, to lift up are the schools and educators.  All of the messaging research for the 2020 Census to try and determine which voices, which institutions people trust the most, always at the top of the list are educators, school administrators, teachers, PTAs, back-to-school nights, computers banks at schools, all should be used as resources to help circulate and distribute information about the census in advance.

In some cases, children are the conduit for families where English may not be the primary languages in terms of getting up-to-date information about a host of activities and programs, the census being one of them.  If there is a household, where the adults may not speak English well, it may be the child learning about the census in school and bringing home some easy-to-understand written materials will help that household participate and answer the census when the time comes.

HEARN:  And all those materials that the Census Bureau produces will be in many languages, I assume.

LOWENTHAL:  That’s right.  People can actually answer the census online or by telephone in English and 12 other languages.  There also will be available online language-assistance guides and videos in 59 languages, plus English, plus braille, and again, video for American Sign Language. For languages that the Census Bureau is not covering, there are a number of national advocacy that will produce materials in additional languages.

HEARN:  Let’s talk about Internet access, because you’ve emphasized in an informative way that this census is going to mainly be online.  The Census Bureau is pushing everybody to respond online with very few exceptions. Some cities have issues with Internet connectivity.  Populations in cities are often high in terms of rates of lack of access to the Internet.  Rural areas have the same issue.  What sorts of measures are being taken to address that we still do have an Internet-connectivity issue to address for this upcoming census?  Are there kiosks, centers?  Are there enumerators?  How will it work to do outreach to people?

LOWENTHAL:  You’re right.  There is concern that the digital divide, which you described very well, could keep people from participating easily in the census.  It’s important to get the word out that anyone who either doesn’t have access to the Internet or is not comfortable using the Internet can respond two other ways.

For the first time, people can call a toll-free line and simply provide their responses over the phone. In addition, some households will get the paper questionnaire in the very first mailing.  And most rural households will also get that paper questionnaire when census workers drop off the census package, For those homes that don’t receive a paper form in the first mailing, if they don’t respond by mid-April, after the Census Bureau sends out several reminders in the mail, every household that hasn’t yet responded will get a paper form.  While we want to encourage people to respond online it’s quicker and it actually costs less for the Census Bureau to have online responses, we also want to make sure that people understand that there are other ways they can answer.

I do want to issue another caution. Those who do have Internet access or who do use computers and go online may be susceptible to phishing scams.  In other words, fake emails that look like they’re coming from the Census Bureau and then give you a link to click to, quote-unquote, respond to the census, when in fact it’s fake and it would take you to a fake website and would try to collect information that you ought not to be giving out to a bad actor.  We want to get the message out:  the Census Bureau is not emailing anyone.

HEARN:  Last question, and it has to do with data collection.  We certainly, as of 2020, will have far more modern and efficient digital tools to deploy. What is the status as it relates to the Census Bureau putting out data to cities, that shows the level of responses so that cities and elsewhere, can deploy follow-up efforts in a targeted way to facilitate the greatest count possible?

LOWENTHAL:  That is a very important question for mayors and other city officials that are organizing Get Out the Count campaigns in their communities and that want to follow the progress of the census in real time.  Starting in mid-March, the Census Bureau will start to report on a daily basis the self-response rates for every state, city, all the way down to what we call the census-tracked levels. That’s a Census Bureau geographic unit, but basically think of it as a neighborhood.

I want to mention another resource, the 2020 Census Hard to Count Interactive Digital Map——created by the City University of New York, CUNY.  It is already a live map down to the census-tracked level.  It is showing hard-to-count areas based on the 2010 Census response rates.  It shows the demographic characteristics of all the neighborhoods so advocates and local governments can understand the effective messaging for different population subgroups. Once the Census Bureau starts producing the daily self-response rates, the CUNY map will post on a daily basis those updated rates so that, again, mayors, local officials, and community-based groups can redeploy if necessary and target their Get Out the Count efforts to areas where response might be lagging in real time.

We are all in this together.  There are many challenges for 2020, but we want people to think about the census in a positive, uplifting way.  I really encourage mayors and other local officials to think of the census as an opportunity to bring communities together, to lift people up, to empower them, and to let them know that this is their chance to be heard, their chance to count.

HEARN:  Excellent.  Thank you, Terri Ann, so much.

LOWENTHAL:  My pleasure.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

Thanks to Terri Ann Lowenthal and Rose Gill Hearn for joining us. To hear more about one city’s efforts to prepare for the census, listen to episode #49 “Census Series – The City of Detroit.”

This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Ivy Li, and Emily Mayrath — music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Eric Sheppard and Tim Herro.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.