Brown on Business

May 25-31, 2020

By Wesley Brown


COVID-19 makes 10-year population count even harder in Arkansas


In ongoing efforts to complete the nation’s 10-year population during an unprecedented and unexpected pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is now faced with massive undertaking of accurately counting more than 330 million people mostly without knocking on anyone’s door.


Already, the 2020 Census is likely to be the most expensive in U.S. history — projected to cost over $15 billion. According to recent report by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), the success of the decennial population count largely depends on how well the Census Bureau manages upcoming peak operations as the COVID-19 virus spreads across the country.


Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau began its constitutionally mandated efforts to locate every person residing in the U.S. in March. To accomplish this task, the federal government must maintain accurate address and map information for every person’s residence. 


If this information is inaccurate, officials say, people can be missed, counted more than once, or included in the wrong location. To help control costs and to improve accuracy, bureau officials have touted new procedures to build its address list for 2020.


As part of its Census Bureau famous canvassing operation, the agency launched a national recruitment effort in late 2019 to hire 500,000 temporary workers to help conduct the national count.  In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an executive order in late August to create the state Census 2020 Complete-Count Committee to ensure all Arkansas residents are accurately counted during the upcoming survey, especially in areas of the state determined as “hard-to-count” census tracts. 


“In Arkansas, we’ve been preparing for years, and an accurate count of Arkansas’s population is critical,” said Hutchinson said nearly a year ago. “The most obvious reason is that the federal government allocates funding back to the states based upon population counts.”


Once the decennial survey officially began in March, most Arkansas residents received an invitation for the first time in U.S. history to complete the 8-page census questionnaire online or by phone, while other households were mailed a paper form along with an invite to respond over the internet. Arkansans not responding by mid-April were supposed to receive a paper questionnaire by mail or canvassers, officials said. 


Two months after the official survey began, Census 2020 officials said 59.6% of all households in the country have responded so far. If you are keeping count, that means that about 87,700,000 households across the U.S. and its territories have responded to date.


Of those households, nearly half or 48.2% of the census respondents have completed the brief survey online. Other respondents have completed the survey either by phone or mail. In Arkansas, 54.7% of all households have completed the survey, ranking Arkansas 38th among all 50 states and U.S. territories. To date, that means about 840,000 households in Arkansas have completed the census questionnaire since Hutchinson’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order and social distancing policies were put in place.


Across the state, Benton and Faulkner counties have the highest census response rates at 63.4% and 63.6%, respectively, well above the state and national average. Based on that latest data, Arkansas and other rural states and hard-to-count urban census tracts that lack adequate internet access could keep thwart efforts to improve response rates after the 2020 Census was extended to Oct. 31, according to the GAO report. 


“For example, messaging and operations that emphasize the importance of filling out the census online, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, may not be applicable to communities or groups with limited internet access,” said the 29-page GAO report. “If social distancing measures result in fewer successful interviews during Non-Response Follow-Up, for instance, then these groups with less internet access will be at relatively greater risk of being missed by the census. 


“Adapting field enumeration procedures to implement social distancing might also be less effective in addressing respondent concerns about interacting with strangers in apartment buildings or other densely populated areas if a census worker cannot practically distance themselves from the door,” concluded the GAO report that now lists the Census 2020 at “high risk” vulnerabilities due to fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement.


Also, Census Bureau field operations were halted on March 18 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 4, agency officials began coordinating with federal, state, and local health officials to begin a phased restart of some field operations in select geographic areas. For safety reasons, the Census Bureau has ordered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all field staff prior to restarting canvassing operations.


As part of the phased restart, the Census Bureau will resume dropping off invitation packets at front doors of households in areas where many residents do not receive mail at their home. This operation, “known as Update Leave,” allows about 5% of households to be counted as census workers confirm or update physical addresses and then leave a census questionnaire packet.


In early May, the Census Bureau also restarted operations at its field offices in Little Rock and Fayetteville with plans to confirm about 80,000 Update Leave households. Nationwide, the bureau intends to restart field operations in 11 additional states and Puerto Rico by the end of May.


Officially, the Census Bureau projected that the U.S. population was 330,222,422 on Jan. 1, 2020. This represents an increase of 1,991,085, or 0.61%, from New Year’s Day 2019. Since that last census in 2010, the population has grown by 21,476,884 or 6.96%.


Besides the major chore of counting everyone person residing in the U.S., the 10-year census also allocates hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance annually, as noted by Hutchinson. Just as important, the survey is used to apportion seats in Congress, redraw congressional districts, and develop social, demographic, and economic profiles of the nation’s people to guide policy decisions at each level of government. 


In the 2010 Census, Black and American Indian races were statistically undercounted, as were respondents of Hispanic origin. Lifestyle characteristics, such as being a renter versus a homeowner, also were associated with undercounts, local officials said


In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the GAO provides this ominous warning in its recent report to Congress:


“[The] COVID-19 outbreak could further complicate the Bureau’s ability to determine the ultimate effectiveness of its partnership and outreach — how well the Bureau achieves the goal of counting everybody once, only once, and in the right place,” the report concluded. “The Bureau plans to estimate census quality by relying in part on interviews conducted door-to-door in a nationwide sample of households, scheduled for the summer and fall of 2020. The COVID-19 outbreak could prompt the Bureau to delay the related field operation to collect the data or affect household responsiveness to in-person visits.”


According to the Arkansas Counts coalition that is partnering with state and federal officials to ensure an accurate statewide survey, Arkansas received more than $9 billion from federal spending programs that based on information from the 2010 census. A one percent undercount of Arkansas in 2020 may result in up to nearly $1 billion in lost funds over the next 10 years, the group said.  


  • Wesley Brown
    Wesley Brown