For decades, the decennial count of the U.S. population has begun first in remote Alaska settlements in January, while the ground is still solid enough to travel. The 2020 Census kicks off this month in tiny Toksook Bay, a traditional Yup’ik village on the Bering Sea.
But when invitations to fill out census information are rolled out by April 1 to every U.S. household, most residents will be encouraged to complete their responses online.
The nation’s first primarily digital Census includes technological upgrades to new back-end systems to guide Census workers as they canvass neighborhoods and help manage everything from data collection to customer support. These innovations should cut costs and boost participation, but they also carry some risk. As the count approaches, officials still are laying the necessary groundwork. They are cutting it close.
In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted the high-risk potential in the 2020 Census, citing concerns about the cost, quality and security. An October update found the bureau to be generally on track to meet key deadlines but noted that technology system development and testing — including critical security assessments — still were incomplete.
To its credit, the Census Bureau has enlisted the help of Department of Homeland Security experts. Still, a Reuters report last month reiterated cybersecurity concerns.
The Census Bureau questioned the veracity of much of the reporting. In a statement, Census officials wrote, “We are working with leading experts from the public and private sector to ensure the security and performance of our systems make it easy and safe to respond.”
This is serious business. Census responses will include personal identifying details of more than 100 million households. But even in the absence of interference, perceived vulnerabilities could breed a lack of confidence in the system, dissuading some people from responding and leading to skewed results.
Census tallies are so vital that Seattle, King County and the Seattle Foundation have offered $1 million in grants to community groups to help boost participation. Similar outreach efforts are happening around the state.
Census figures are used to carve out political districts, inform a host of data-driven decisions and apportion funding for more than 300 federal spending programs. Washington’s share of federal funding totaled $16.7 billion in 2016, or $2,319 per person, according to the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center. That included nearly $700 million for bridge and highway maintenance and construction, $8.5 billion for health programs and more than $2 billion for schools.
Already, experts say to expect misinformation campaigns, not unlike those that have marred recent elections, to plague the 2020 Census as bad actors attempt to divide and confuse the populous, and discourage participation in some communities. Census officials must be transparent about the remaining fixes and efforts to complete them to build full faith and confidence in this year’s count.
An accurate count of this country’s population hinges on the participation of every resident. A lack of information only breeds mistrust.