A Socially-Distanced 2020 Census

How Rhode Island is attempting to count every single one of its residents

by Kion You

Illustration by Matt Ishimaru

published April 24, 2020



The United States Census Bureau has historically declared April 1 as a national "Census Day," a time to unite the nation in the shared importance of completing the census. Complete Count Committees (CCCs), localized census advocacy groups composed of community leaders and government officials, would have hosted rallies and marches to promote the 2020 census, launched earlier in March, and would have emphasized the $1.5 trillion in federal funding at stake. However, with stay-at-home orders in place across most of America, CCCs have had to radically rework their campaign strategies. In Providence, a city at serious risk of being undercounted, Census Day shifted online.

Sabina Matos, the president of the Providence City Council, kicked off the hundred person Zoom meeting by emphasizing the most crucial point: Census data determines how much federal money Rhode Island gets over the next decade. She presented the stakes as "four billion dollars allocated to the state for healthcare, housing, roads, environmental protections." Mayor Jorge Elorza spoke next, emphasizing the redistricting impact of the census, saying, "We are on the brink of losing a congressional seat, unless everyone gets out there and gets counted."

Luis Estrada, a Rhode Island CCC leader, spoke about how census outreach, which has been ongoing in Providence for over a year, had been thwarted by COVID-19 at its most critical juncture. "Here's the truth," Estrada explained. "We're stuck in a situation where our traditional field no longer a valid operation for us." In past years, if households did not self-respond to the census—which in 2010 was over one third of households nationwide—one of 500,000 enumerators hired by the Census Bureau would have knocked on their door to obtain information. Door knocking usually starts in May, but this year census field operations have come to a complete halt, with June 1 as a tentative comeback date. On April 13, the Bureau asked Congress to extend the delivery of final census figures from the end of this year to April 30, 2021, but the proposal is currently pending.

Because 2020 is the first year the census has gone primarily online, rather than through mail, the Census Bureau has provided real time response rates across the nation. The city of Providence has lagged behind both the state and nation, falling in line with a trend among lower income, majority-minority urban areas. As of April 22, the national self-response rate is at 51 percent. Rhode Island as a whole is at 48.3 percent, but Providence is over ten percentage points lower, at 37.2 percent. The consequences of a potential Providence and Rhode Island undercount are dire: According to the Rhode Island CCC's Get Out the Count Plan, an incorrect count would affect the allocation of a third of the state's annual budget. Moreover, Providence County had already undergone a census test run, when it served as the Census Bureau's sole guinea pig in advance of 2020. Its results were dismal, with self-response rates ending up at 52 percent. Some residents may even believe that there is no need to fill out the 2020 census given their participation last year.




The entire city of Providence is classified by the Bureau as a "Hard to Count" census tract, due to factors such as language barriers, low literacy, and a lack of internet access. Accordingly, residents of color have been consistently undercounted: In 2010, Rhode Island's Black population was undercounted by 2.6 percent, its Latinx population by 2.1 percent, and its Asian population by .8 percent. Dr. John Logan, a professor of sociology whose research depends on census data, told the College Hill Independent that although inaccurate census data could be more or less remediated on a national and state level, it is the local, neighborhood tract level that would be most vulnerable to statistical variance. "We have a very large, predominantly Latino population in various parts of the city," he said. "I think it's more likely that it will be undercounted on that scale."

Because Providence’s Latinx population makes up 42 percent of the city’s residents, an additional roadblock to full census participation is latent fear around giving personal information to the government. Moreover, the proposed and since-removed "Citizenship Question" on the census—a fear-mongering gesture by the Trump Administration—has instilled even more wariness among immigrant communities. Dr. Logan also mentioned that due to current pandemic conditions, a proper count may be more of an issue among immigrant, working-class communities. "Some people are going back to Mexico," he said. "Some people are hiding. Some people are not normally where they are."

James Diossa, the mayor of Central Falls and co-chair of Rhode Island's Complete Count Committee, told the Independent that despite being in a crippling pandemic, the census still needs to get done. "I think it's absolutely a priority," he said. "This will have a ten year impact." Accordingly, Diossa said that Rhode Island's CCC has adjusted their outreach strategy from traditional, in-person field operations to methods such as mass robocalls, liaising with public schools, and blasting translated materials into the local media. Their outreach strategy is evolving in real time, as government and community organizations across the state rush to test online methods for effectiveness and efficiency.

Diossa is viewing Rhode Island's stay-at-home orders as a potential positive for response rates, given the fact that the census is now online. "This is a unique opportunity," he said to the Independent. "People should have time to fill out the census. There's really no excuse." However, Diossa also recognized the difficulty of getting the importance of the census across to his largely Latinx, immigrant population, many of whom are new to a decennial census system and are already experiencing instability as essential or unemployed workers. "You have to be very direct," Diossa said, and stated that the messaging that resonated most with his community took the form of something like, "With your participation, you are allowing us to participate in improving schools, healthcare, and roads."

As a whole, those most hurt by stay-at-home orders will be groups without fixed addresses, groups that must be physically visited to be counted: native communities on rural reservations, people experiencing homelessnes, those temporarily staying in others’ homes. As a result, just as much as the census is a statistical examination, it is inevitably a political one. And cities like Providence, with large low-income, minority populations already reeling from the economic consequences of COVID-19, will require more funding and outreach so that the Constitutional mandate for the census is given its due diligence.




More optimistically, as people adjust to social distancing, new grassroots strategies to perform online census outreach have been circulating across the nation through social media. The New York Immigration Coalition is encouraging the use of Instagram Live to film yourself filling out the census and distribute it across online circles. The Asian American Federation has advocated meeting different racial groups on their commonly used social media applications: WeChat, for the Chinese community and KaKaoTalk, for the Korean community. The Latino Community Foundation has even launched a census-inspired lottery game called “Censotería.” Personally, I have been flooded with Instagram advertisements from the Census Bureau, as well as YouTube advertisements featuring cameos by local Providence personalities: Mayor Elorza, NBC 10’s Mario Hilario, Bekka Berger from Hot 106, and the Big Nazo aliens. On Twitter, dozens of Providence nonprofits blast census infographics everyday, emphasizing the federal funding that goes to their specific arenas of social work.

Ultimately, both Dr. Logan and Mayor Diossa emphasized that at the moment, the census is clouded in uncertainty. If census data ends up skewed, the equitable distribution of resources and democracy could be thrown off for the next ten years. In this vein, the 2020 census falls in line with just about every other private and public good and service put into jeopardy over the past month. Towards the end of his interview, Dr. Logan threw this question of uncertainty back onto the Independent. He asked, in regards to reporting on the census, "How do you make your work informative when you have ambiguity?" Perhaps we can look to the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force Leader Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told Vanity Fair regarding the future of our country, "I will say what’s true, and whatever happens, happens."


Kion You B’20 encourages every single person to get counted, and to tell their friends to do the same.