The outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. Census Bureau, which recently launched its effort to count every American over the next few months.

The Census is required by the Constitution and is tied to federal funding for projects in communities across the country. However, the social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could likely make an accurate count more difficult to obtain.

On top of that, NPR recently reported that a Census Bureau employee in Iowa tested positive for COVID-19. The agency stressed that the employee is being quarantined and did not interact with the public. 

One bright spot is that the Census will be completed online for the first time this year, giving people the option to participate without any type of social interaction. Every U.S. household will receive a postcard with instructions on how to complete the Census at my2020census.gov.

The Census website estimates that the questionnaire will take about 10 minutes to complete. It can also be completed by phone. Either way, any entry done now will be one fewer household that Census takers need to meet in person.

Any household that has not responded online or by phone after Census Day on April 1 will receive a printed questionnaire to complete. Those who still have not responded after that will be visited by Census takers.

In light of COVID-19, the Bureau announced that it would be pushing back its timeline for in-person visits this spring. College students living off-campus will now be contacted starting April 23 instead of April 9. All other households will be visited starting in May.

“It is critical that households understand that self-responding to the census can help alleviate additional burdens to the Bureau, brought on by COVID-19,” Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, said in a written statement.

While the Census is required to be conducted every 10 years, its timing might be flexible in light of COVID-19. Some lawmakers are already calling for an extension of the July 31 deadline to complete the count. 

Representatives of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote a letter to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, urging him to push back the Census deadline to October 31 to allow more time for in-person follow up once COVID-19 is under control. 

If the deadline is not extended, the representatives argue, the results could be massively undercounted, particularly in low-income communities that are most in need of federal funding that is tied to the Census.

The Census Bureau is still looking to hire people to be Census takers this spring and typically draws on retirees who are looking for temporary, part-time work. These populations are reported to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and it remains to be seen how the virus will impact staffing over the next few months.

As of mid-March, about 3 million households had completed the Census online. Dillingham said he would wait to see how the response rate is over the next few weeks before making a final decision about the timing of in-person counting.

For now, grassroots groups can do their part to encourage Census participation by directing members to complete the Census at my2020census.gov.


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