A shortage of paper 2020 Census questionnaires hurt response rates in Philadelphia, where a large portion of residents don’t have reliable internet access, and likely means the Census Bureau will undercount residents, according to a city review of census operations released Friday.
Philadelphia won’t know exactly how much the lack of forms affected its population count until the Census Bureau releases a report on the 2020 Census this spring, said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts, the city’s initiative to ensure the census counted all Philadelphians. City officials also think the Census Bureau’s decision to open fewer satellite offices in the city in favor of mobile operations that targeted the places residents visit “was detrimental to our ability to get a complete and accurate count,” she said.
The Census Bureau’s public information office did not respond directly to the city’s criticisms on Friday, but acknowledged “there were many design changes to the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The Census Bureau is hard at work processing the results, and as in prior censuses, we will do a thorough review to assess the quality of the census,” the office said in a statement.
The constitutionally mandated, once-a-decade count of every person living in the United States will determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to state and local governments for the next 10 years. The population count also determines the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House. States soon will use 2020 Census data to redraw voting districts.
The 2020 Census was the first decennial census in which the Census Bureau encouraged everyone to respond online. Although the bureau sent paper invitations to respond and paper forms by mail, the focus on internet response presented challenges in cities such as Philadelphia that have wide digital divides.
When the bureau found more than 16 million extra paper questionnaires well into the population count late last summer, “it felt like manna from heaven,” Reid said.
The bureau said it would send the paper forms to areas of the country with the lowest response rates. Throughout the population count, the city tracked which neighborhoods had the lowest rates and found that they also were the ones with the lowest internet access. But the bureau skipped those census tracts and sent forms to tracts it knew had internet access.
“The people who needed those forms the most were completely left out,” Reid said. “It furthered the inequity that was baked in” to the 2020 Census and “did not acknowledge how deep the digital divide is in some places.”
Some residents called by Philly Counts during its phone banking said they did not recall receiving paper invitations to participate in the census, indicating that they either missed the mailing or the invitations never arrived.
For the 2020 Census, 56.9% of Philadelphia households completed their forms, a drop from 2010′s rate of 62.4%, according to the Census Bureau. The city missed its goal of increasing participation, but city officials argue differences in how the bureau calculated each rate mean the rates aren’t comparable. In addition to self responses, the bureau collects data through census takers and administrative records.
Reid also acknowledged other challenges to getting an accurate population count, including a pandemic that scattered residents and canceled planned community outreach events, the further deepening of residents’ distrust of government during protests against systemic racism, difficulties moving census takers through hiring and training, and shifting census deadlines.
“All these things combined to create a sea of chaos around the 2020 Census,” she said.
Staying in constant communication with local Census Bureau officials was invaluable, she said. Although the city started preparing for the 2020 Census a year earlier than it did for the 2010 Census, the city should start earlier still for 2030, the city and its census partners concluded. During the city’s experience navigating a census like no other, Philly Counts learned the importance of deep and broad community outreach, the need to invest in community organizing, and building trust with residents over time, lessons the city plans to bring to 2030 Census preparations, Reid said.
Philly Counts staff and volunteers made more than 300,000 calls to Philadelphians to encourage them to participate in the census, distributed nearly 300,000 door hangers, and traveled throughout the city to help residents fill out the questionnaire on tablets. The city plans to build on its community engagement tactics for the next census.
And starting Monday, Philly Counts plans to use what it has learned and the community networks it has created to shift its focus to coronavirus vaccine distribution and educating Philadelphians about the shots.
“There is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there around the vaccine,” Reid said.
In 2019, the now-retired director of the Census Bureau praised Philadelphia for educating thousands of people about the census and training them to spread accurate information in their communities. Steven Dillingham said the bureau should use the city’s Census Champions program as a model for other cities trying to get their residents to fill out their census questionnaires.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.