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.

There is a proposal to add a question to the 2020 Census asking about citizenship. If this question is included, it will have a chilling effect on responses from immigrant communities. The Census Bureau has been preparing for the 2020 Census for over seven years, 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. According to four former Census Directors, who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, asking about citizenship status would “lead to inaccurate responses,” and “the sum effect would be bad Census data,” that would leave public, private, and nonprofit decision makers with bad information. 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 proposed citizenship question would only make these problems worse. If this question is added to the Census at the last minute, it will essentially negate over seven years of careful planning by the Census Bureau, which conducts extensive research and testing to ensure that they are conducting as accurate a count as possible. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent in preparation for the 2020 Census, and if the unprecedented decision to add a question at the last minute is made, it will add hundreds of millions, if not billions, more to the total cost. This is money that could be going to fund programs that help families across Pennsylvania that will be wasted on an unconstitutional attempt to change the nature of the Census.

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