'Unique Circumstances' of 2020 Led U.S. Census to Make Changes in Effort to Improve Trust

In an effort to boost confidence among the American population, the U.S. Census Bureau proposed new changes aimed at fixing issues caused by the "unique circumstances" of 2020, the Associated Press reported.

The once-a-decade count faced simultaneous disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and a political dispute triggered by the Trump administration's failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the questionnaire.

One of the proposed adjustments would allow states, municipalities and tribal nations to dispute the numbers of people reported to be living in facilities like dorms, prisons and nursing homes. The accuracy of results for these group quarters has been called into question because many students were sent home from their college residences amid the pandemic, while prisons and nursing homes went into lockdown to protect residents from the virus.

For example, Boston announced in late October that it would be joining a handful of cities in challenging the 2020 census results for a seeming undercount of students, inmates and foreign-born residents. In a letter sent to the U.S. Census Bureau that month, former acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey wrote that city authorities estimate about 5,000 college students weren't accounted for in the census results, AP reported.

The proposed change, expected to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, emerged after public feedback highlighted issues in accurately counting group facilities "due to the unique circumstances surrounding the 2020 Census," the Census Bureau said in a statement.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.S. Census Changes
The Census Bureau is looking to restore trust in the numbers it gathered during the 2020 census by fixing problems caused by the unprecedented challenges of conducting a U.S. head count in the middle of pandemic and natural disasters, as well as politicization by the Trump administration. Paul Sancya/AP Photo

The Census Bureau announced last week that it will break with past practice and not rely on 2020 census data solely as the basis for creating its annual estimates of the U.S. population. The estimates are used to help distribute $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year and measure annual population change through 2030.

For the first time, bureau statisticians will blend some of the 2020 census numbers with various other data sets for the base when it releases numbers for 2021 and possibly 2022.

Statisticians wanted time to evaluate the census data to make sure it is usable for the estimates, said Christine Hartley, a Census Bureau official.

"Because of how the pandemic impacted census field operations, there also were many questions about quality," Hartley said. "We needed some kind of solution that didn't fully rely on the 2020 census data."

Some experts say the fixes serve as a reality check on a sometimes over-optimistic attitude by bureau officials about a head count that faced formidable challenges and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes and attempts by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question that failed, but nevertheless may have scared off some people from participating.

Although the Census Bureau has been transparent in releasing quality measures of data gathered in the face of the unprecedented challenges, "in doing so, it always puts the best face possible on what is happening," said Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund.

"I have a saying that, 'It's always sunny in Suitland,'" Vargas added, referring to the statistical agency's headquarters in Suitland, Maryland. "But there needs to be an acknowledgment that there are challenges even they can't overcome."

The changes have mostly been well-received by demographers and advocates. They "can increase accuracy, and that's a good thing that increases trust," said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center in New Orleans.

Demographer William O'Hare, who has advocated for making sure children are fully counted, said the "blended base" approach would improve estimates for children by using highly accurate birth certificate data. Missed children are a big concern, since an analysis O'Hare did earlier this year showed there was a 4.4% undercount of Hispanic children in the 2020 census.

Concerns about an undercount among Blacks, Hispanics, children and tribal nations are heightened by the risk that those groups could be shortchanged in the distribution of federal funds, some advocates say.

"The National Urban League has every reason to believe that Blacks were undercounted during the 2020 Census at rates exceeding the previous census," said Marc Morial, the civil rights group's president and CEO in an email. "It is a GOOD thing that Census is trying to be more transparent (and more is needed), and that we are talking about options and new data sources to address the differential undercount."

The bureau's own take on the accuracy of its 2020 census won't be officially known until next year, when it releases a report card on how good a job it did. Earlier this year, an American Statistical Association task force said its review found no irregularities indicating the results were unfit for use in the apportionment of congressional seats, or that they were of lower quality than those in 2010.

An analysis by the Urban Institute, however, found that people of color, renters, noncitizens, children and people living in Texas—the state that saw the nation's largest growth—were most likely to be missed, though by smaller margins than some had projected for a count conducted under such difficult circumstances.

There are some concerns about the census data that the announced changes won't fix, such as the Census Bureau's new privacy technique which inserts inaccuracies at very small geographic levels to protect the confidentiality of participants such as, say, the only family of a certain ethnicity living in a particular geographic area. Some small town officials are concerned that sparsely-populated communities aren't being described accurately, said Eric Guthrie, senior demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

In another effort at protecting confidentiality, the Census Bureau is contemplating not including granular data when it releases the next round of 2020 census numbers next year. That data will deal with housing and family relationships, and the bureau says it has taken great pains to produce accurate information while protecting the privacy of participants in the nation's head count.

Guthrie recently told a National Academies committee studying census data quality that there's a lot of skepticism among small town officials he's spoken to. He said many of them mobilized considerable resources to help with the count and now feel betrayed that they won't get usable data at the smallest geographies.

"This is the one shot they get and they feel like they have been robbed of it," Guthrie said. "There's not a basis of trust anymore."

Census Workers
The 2020 Census faced simultaneous disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and a political dispute triggered by the Trump administration's failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the questionnaire. Above, census workers stand outside Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as the city continued Phase 4 of reopening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus, on September 24, 2020, in New York. Noam Galai/Getty Images