The pandemic has stretched out the amount of time the census is being conducted, contributing to worries over accuracy. Kena Benakur/AFP via Getty Images
Stay-at-home orders in March coincided with the period when millions of Americans received their census questionnaires in the mail. But large numbers of Americans moved from where they normally live to somewhere else – in with relatives with spare rooms, back home from college or even released from prisons. These highly unusual circumstances are likely to result in failures to count, double-counting or counting in the wrong place portions of the population.
Disruption from the pandemic adds to existing worries around the accuracy of this year’s census data, including the introduction of a technique to protect residents’ privacy and a potentially low response rate stemming from distrust in the government.
I am a demographer working with local governments, businesses and nonprofits, and this combination of factors makes me deeply concerned about how accurate census data will be when it’s released in 2021.
Communities rely on accurate data for a range of essential services, whether it’s determining the needs for hospital beds and vaccine doses, social programs for seniors or the unemployed, or evaluating wide-ranging health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic.
Good data in
People who work with statistics know that there needs to be “good data in” in order to get “good data out.” In the context of the census, good data in means “counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” The decennial census gathers data from every household in the nation to accomplish this enormous undertaking.
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People are supposed to report where they were living on
The pandemic led the
Finally, the Trump administration’s positions on immigration may further depress participation or distort results. Nearly 14% of the
In short, both pandemic and policy-related forces threaten the goal of getting good data in.
Good data out
“Good data out” means that the data collected by the census is carefully processed and truthfully reported. Census results are the benchmark for federal, state and local data and the gold standard for what we can know about the country’s residents.
National and state totals will be reported accurately, which is critical for congressional apportionment. But the process of shuffling data to protect privacy at county, city and town levels as well as among different age or racial groups means the data will be incoherent or even erroneous.
Bad data will have bad consequences. For example, next year when health officials use the fresh census data to determine COVID-19 death rates among the
Similar to an athletic team’s record bearing an asterisk marking a sullied season, the 2020 census will bear the unfortunate impact of the pandemic. Much is beyond the Census Bureau’s control, but this decennial census will also carry a second asterisk, due to
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