‘No match for 2020’: Census worker details the ‘historic obstacles’ he faced this year

‘No match for 2020’: Census worker details the ‘historic obstacles’ he faced this year
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The 2020 U.S. Census was conducted during an incredibly chaotic year — one in which the United States was rocked by everything from the worst pandemic in over 100 years to civil unrest to a brutal recession to a bitterly divisive presidential race. Adam Chandler, a 2000 Census worker, shares his observations in an article published by The Atlantic on November 24.

"The 2020 Census, which ended its data-collecting operations last month, seems destined to become one of the most telling artifacts of this very strange year," explains Chandler, a former Atlantic staff writer. "As a Census taker, I got a front-porch view of what happens when a 230-year-old national rite runs headlong into a country all but at war with itself and its institutions. Throughout six weeks of door-knocking in dense New York neighborhoods and Georgia backwoods, I got a good look at 2020 America — not only its demography, but also, its deep mistrust of government and diminishing faith in the common good."

Conducting a Census in a country as large as the U.S. is always a heavy lift, but Chandler stresses that 2020 was especially challenging.

"The obstacles facing the 2020 Census were historic," Chandler observes. "Even before the counting started, the Trump Administration demanded that the Census include a citizenship question — a controversial move that set off a yearlong legal battle in which even the Census Bureau warned that response rates would likely decline. And although the Supreme Court stymied the White House's efforts to add the citizenship question, other barriers — including unprecedented politicization, massive natural disasters, widespread civil unrest, funding shortfalls, high employee turnover, ever-shifting deadlines, and nearly ceaseless litigation — undermined the entire Census project. A pandemic hit too."

This year, Chandler notes, the Census was delayed for months because of the COVID-19 crisis.

According to Chandler, "That lag between early May, when door-knocking was supposed to start, and August, when it did, will matter.… Accurately completing a Census case means knowing who lived at an address on April 1, 2020, whether that information is taken from a resident or, oftentimes, a neighbor. The further you stray from the reference day, the less accurate the data become — particularly in a time of heavier population displacement."

Chandler laments that the U.S. Census Bureau's "own data show it has often failed to fully count communities of color, non–English speakers, lower-income families, immigrants — some of the same demographic groups that have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic."

"The true stakes of a Census count, which include congressional representation and more than $1 trillion of annually allocated taxpayer money, are nearly impossible to grasp," Chandler emphasizes. "According to a report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, each person not counted by the 2010 Census cost the state they were living in $1091 in 2015, on average. For a household of five, that adds up to $54,550 over a decade."

As hard as he worked, Chandler explains, "The Census was no match for 2020" — and that included natural disasters in addition to a pandemic.

"The months-long delay of the counting period also placed the work in the middle of natural-disaster season," Chandler writes. "While wildfires were blazing in the West — threatening basic life in California, Oregon, and Washington — much of my team sat idle for a day as Hurricane Sally dumped heavy rain on Georgia…. How we plan, conduct, and use the Census reveals the character of the country in a way that numbers alone cannot."

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