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A census count complicated by coronavirus could lead to conflict
08292018 TOM BAXTER
Tom Baxter

Americans had already grown wearily accustomed to the rituals of counting by the time April 1 — Census Day — rolled around. Every day since Leap Day, when the first U.S. coronavirus death was announced, has been filled with tallies of deaths, infections and hospitalizations, sorted by nation and by state.

To obtain an accurate count of a constantly changing population, there has to be an agreed-upon day on which it can be said where each of the counted was living, how old they were and what relations they were living with. That’s Census Day. The actual counting doesn’t have to take place on that day, but April 1 does mark the official beginning of this once-a-decade process that the framers of the U.S. Constitution mandated as necessary for the periodic reapportionment of Congress.

Most of us have received an invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau to answer its questionnaire online or by mail before Census Day, and in Georgia a mediocre 34% of us have done so. That matters, because the census results determine how the federal government will allot billions of dollars covering a host of programs to states and local communities. COVID-19 has made this census especially vulnerable to undercounts, potentially leading to inequities in the way those dollars are divided.

This week, the Census Bureau began sending out paper forms to 65.6 million households that haven’t answered the questionnaire. On Wednesday, the bureau is also scheduled to resume hiring the seasonal employees to knock on doors and go the extra mile to locate those who are hardest to count. The bureau suspended operations in mid-March due to the virus and has already pushed back the date to resume them once, so there could be more delays.

The census takers won’t actually start tracking down the uncounted until May 27, a process that is scheduled to go on until mid-August

They will face challenges unlike any in decades past.

 This decade’s census questionnaire has only 12 questions, but they will have to be asked at a distance of at least six feet, wearing face masks presumably. Already, dozens of events aimed at increasing participation have been delayed or canceled due to the pandemic, and operations at the bureau’s regional centers have been slowed. The field work is supposed to be finished by mid-August. 

Despite the obstacles involved in counting a population struggling through a pandemic, we already know the broad outlines of the 2020 Census. 

Georgia’s population will rise for the first time to more than 10 million, the fifth-largest increase in raw numbers behind Texas, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. 

This won’t be enough to increase the size of the state’s U.S. House delegation or give it more electoral college votes.

Metro Atlanta will show a gain of more than 730,000 since 2010, making it the fourth fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country and the fastest growing east of the Mississippi.

The nation’s total population is expected to be around 368 million, up from 332 million a decade ago. The mean center of the U.S. population will still be in Wright County, Mo., about a mile closer to the town of Hartville. These incremental changes reflect a country whose population is aging and growing more slowly, and shifting steadily westward, as indeed it has in every census.

The accuracy of these projections is based on the data collected in previous decades. The question hanging over this census is whether future projections will come with an asterisk attached. This is the first census to make full-scale use of the internet, and in many ways that’s fortunate: it will involve less physical contact than any previous counting. 

Still, the results are likely to be questioned, in part because of the innovations it employs, but mainly because the difficulties presented by the pandemic will inevitably raise doubts about the accuracy of the count. 

As the federal government plunges into $2 trillion in spending aimed at resuscitating the economy, those doubts could give rise to serious political conflicts in the decade ahead.

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.

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