In addition to the ongoing obstacles for getting a fair and accurate count, the 2020 census will face new complications that could cause Pennsylvania to miss out on the funding and representation to which it is entitled to, for an entire decade.

Lack of Internet Access or Digital Literacy

Many people are unaware of the fact that the Census is transitioning to a largely digital format, with the vast majority of the data collection occurring online. This will exacerbate the difficulties of reaching a variety of hard to count populations, especially rural households, low income households, communities of color, and people experiencing homelessness. According to the FCC, 803,645 Pennsylvanians do not meet the minimum threshold of having broadband internet access, and so more than six percent of Pennsylvania’s population could be missed. Even for those who do have the ability to get broadband access, a lack of digital literacy may prevent them from submitting the form, and the fact that the Census is now largely online could cause some to be fearful that their information will be hacked.

Distrust of Government 

A generalized distrust of government based on historical mistreatment may cause fewer people, particularly those from hard to count communities, to participate in the Census. Immigrants, communities of color, and people experiencing homelessness may distrust a government questionnaire that asks for detailed personal information. And those communities already pose special challenges for being counted accurately.

Many people may simply assume that the government already has the information, and see no reason to fill out the Census form. They may also assume that information collected with the Census could be shared with other federal agencies, but this is prohibited by federal law.

The Census Bureau has been preparing for the 2020 Census for over seven years, conducting extensive research and testing to ensure that they are conducting as accurate a count as possible. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent in preparation for the 2020 Census, and they have done qualitative research that shows an “unprecedented” level of concern about the confidentiality of data provided to the Bureau and whether it would be shared with immigration enforcement agencies. There are no do-overs with the Census, and if the count is inaccurate, the Pennsylvania will have to deal with the consequences for ten years.

Uncertainty in Census Bureau

In addition to all these issues, the Census Bureau itself is facing issues that will pose challenges to conducting a fair and accurate count. The Census Bureau has been underfunded in recent years, and there have been changes in leadership at the Bureau during a critical time in the preparation for the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau will have a dramatically smaller field footprint in 2020 relative to the 2010 Census count. The number of regional Census offices, area Census offices, and the Census workforce have been drastically reduced. In 2010, there were 12 regional Census offices; in 2020 there will be only 6. In 2010 there were 425 area Census offices, with 19 in Pennsylvania; in 2020 there will be only 248 area Census offices, with only 9 in Pennsylvania. In 2010 the Census hired 150,000 address canvassers; in 2020 there will be only 50,000. In 2010 the Census employed 600,000 enumerators; in 2020 there will be only 475,000.

We need to plan now to ensure that Pennsylvania is counted fairly and accurately.